ARGO won for Best Picture, of course, but in my view it merited an additional Oscar. And so did the far more controversial ZERO DARK THIRTY.
Consider that Hollywood hands out awards for everything from “Sound Mixing” to “Best Picture.” But over the decades no Oscar category existed to honor movies for intellectual or political integrity. Perhaps that reflects, to be cynical, the recognition that in any given year there’d be too few nominees to fill out the category. But this year that was not the case. It was a banner year for Hollywood integrity.
LINCOLN might come to mind first, of course. Surely Steven Spielberg in his prior films, especially the anti-war SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) and anti-revenge thriller MUNICH (2005), has been a very clever and entertaining mix-master of narrative with message. But LINCOLN, for all is merits, was a very easy sale to Americans. After all, who can quarrel, other than some frustrated nitpicking academic, with a movie about Honest Abe?
This was not the case with the basic messages of ARGO and ZERO DARK THIRTY.
Both movies were engrossing – well plotted, well acted and, especially, well directed. But they were something else, too. They stretched you – they tried to be honest about America. And thus they were very special.
Recall that ARGO opens almost lecture-like with newsreel footage of America’s history of coarse intervention in the internal affairs of Iran, a sovereign state that has been an active member of the United Nations since its 1945 founding.
The vivid footage told of the brazen British-American plot that pushed out the democratically elected regime of Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 and replaced it with the more pliable Mohammad-Reza Shah Pahlavi, who proceeded to become markedly authoritarian and anti-Islamic. But not forever: In 1979 came the Islamic Revolution with an Islamic and anti-Western government now apparently determined to possess nuclear weapons. Iran would then become not the only nation in the region with such an arsenal, of course, just the one most open about it.
And so by prefacing ARGO with old footage of popular Iranian anger over Western intervention, Director Ben Affleck asks the characteristically under-informed American moviegoer to entertain some feeling for the rage that simmers even today. It is not irrational: Iranians are not animals but human beings who know their history. ARGO helps us understand their anger. With understanding, perhaps, can come a smarter American public opinion and a more effective U.S. diplomacy.
Similarly, my other favorite political movie of this Oscar season – ZERO DARK THIRTY – helps spotlight the use of torture in the far-from-Washington operational levels of the U.S. counterattack against Al Qaeda in South Asia. By opening the movie with vivid renditions of water boarding and so on, Director Kathryn Bigelow shoves our face in the direction of the truth. This has not made her popular with U.S. policy-makers. But history will show she did the right thing.
Whether authorized or not, whether in fact useful in getting to the truth or not, torture was used by the U.S. Indeed, if recent allegations from Afghanistan are accurate, it still is. To deny this is to be dishonest. And to tell the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden as if torture were not one of the many strategies used in the desperate hunt would have been both laughable and tragically dishonest.
At what point will we be able to say that America has finally grown up enough to confront the reality that as great as it is, it has been very far from perfect, especially in our foreign relations with others?
Ang Lee (LIFE OF PI) is a terrific director of course. But if – this year at least – special Oscars had been awarded to directors with movies brave enough to tell Americans extremely uncomfortable truths, they should have gone to Affleck and Bigelow. Of course, as you know, neither one was nominated for Best Director at all.
This is a reprint of a syndicated column by American career journalist Tom Plate, who teaches at Loyola Marymount University and the author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ book series. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The New ASIA MEDIA.