The political criticisms of Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, and The Dark Knight Rises stem from the fact that for Hollywood, history and ideology are second to business—and individualistic narratives sell.
This past year was one of the best in memory for people who are both movie buffs and political geeks. Many of 2012's offerings from Hollywood were overtly political, with more than one major blockbuster concerned with what President Obama might call "big things." Class, race, gender, economics, even the art of politics itself—movies such as The Dark Knight Rises, Les Mis, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Django Unchained,and Argo all touched upon these one or more of these themes, sometimes adroitly, sometimes not-so-much.
But in the understandable excitement to see these movies and join the debate, something fundamental has gone (mostly) forgotten: the ideology of Hollywood itself.
When I say that Hollywood has its own ideology, I'm not talking about the political fads that occasionally occupy its most prominent denizens. I'm not thinking of Madonna's Kabbalah hobby or Ben Affleck's campaigns for Congo. What I'm talking about is the ways in which its business model—which is entirely dependent upon big money and even bigger audiences—determines the risks it will and won't take, the questions it will and won't ask, and the answers it will and won't provide.
Hollywood, then, is like any other major institution: It reflects and reinforces its society's assumptions, its economic systems, and its audience's most deeply held beliefs. This may seem like a no-brainer, but if we look at the debates inspired by three of the year's most high-profile releases—Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, and The Dark Knight Rises—we can see that Hollywood's ideology can operate with more subtlety than one might expect from the folks who brought us White Chicks and Resident Evil.
To start, let's take Zero Dark Thirty, an already highly controversial film that has polarized audiences, thrilling professional film critics and enraging leftists, liberals, and other principled opponents of the torture policy implemented by President Bush during the early years of the War on Terror.
The film's most prominent detractors tend to be political writers who were equally vociferous in their opposition to those Bush-era policies: The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald and The New Yorker's Jane Mayer, to name just two of the more high-profile examples. In both instances, these writers found Zero Dark Thirty to be an immoral and unsubtle apologia for what's euphemistically called "enhanced interrogation." Greenwald even goes so far as to call it a "pernicious" and "propagandistic" film that "glorifies torture." Mayer, writing in sorrow more than anger, claims Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow "milks the U.S. torture program for drama" and "subtly puts [her] thumb on the pro-torture scale."
Greenwald's disgust takes him a step further, however, into a rather sweeping condemnation of today's American society:
It is a true sign of the times that Liberal Hollywood has produced the ultimate hagiography of the most secretive arm of America's National Security State, while liberal film critics lead the parade of praise and line up to bestow it with every imaginable accolade. Like the bin Laden killing itself, this is a film that tells Americans to feel good about themselves, to feel gratitude for the violence done in their name, to perceive the War-on-Terror-era CIA not as lawless criminals but as honorable heroes.
While it may be true that some American viewers will see Zero Dark Thirty and "feel good about themselves," it's not true that this represents something new, that it is a "sign of the times." A cursory foray into the archives of Warner Bros. will confirm that Hollywood and the federal government have long been working hand-in-hand when it comes to warfare. Judged against Frank Capra's 1942-1945 series of pro-war "documentaries," Why We Fight—directly commissioned by General George Marshall and soon thereafter championed by President Roosevelt himself—Zero Dark Thirty looks meek if not downright subversive. The times, it turns out, aren't a-changing.
It's individuals, and individuals alone, who matter. This is Hollywood's enduring, conservative belief. But it's less ideology than business imperative.
No less than any other pillar of society, Hollywood falls in line when the nation is awash in patriotic fervor and the fear of an existential threat. All the more so when the enemy is perceived as "hating our freedoms," which are often represented in the wider world through Hollywood and its uncensored lasciviousness. Furthermore, it's misguided, if not obtuse, to complain that a reportedly $40 million-plus film (which endeavors to depict a military strike that eight-out-of-10 Americans approved) might be depict a moment in American history as "a holy chapter in the Gospel of America's Goodness," as Greenwald contemptuously puts it.