Hollywood's Real Bias Is Conservative (but Not in the Way Liberals Often Say)

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.

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Sony / Warner Bros. / Touchstone

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.

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.

When it comes to alleged infidelity to American history, though, no 2012 film had to defend itself more than Steven Spielberg's Tony Kushner-penned Lincoln, which claimed to be an unusually fact-based and well-researched Hollywood depiction of the 13th Amendment's passage. The attacks on Lincoln have emanated from folks who in two broadly defined camps: those who felt the film was disturbingly unconcerned with the role slaves and freedmen played in their own liberation, and those who felt the film was a thinly veiled defense of a politics of incremental improvement over radical change.

Although Aaron Bady's parsing of the anti-radicalism that serves as Lincoln's philosophical backbone is the most in-depth, the most influential of the Lincoln takedowns was probably the New York Times op-ed penned by Northwestern history professor Kate Masur. While she grants that Lincoln "largely avoids the noxious stereotypes of subservient African-Americans," Masur believes the film nevertheless "reinforces ... the outdated assumption that white men are the primary movers of history and the main source of social progress." Professor and political theorist Corey Robin made a similar point in a much-talked-about blog post, claiming the film "studiously keeps black people in the audience" and makes narrative choices that deny the possibility of "blacks as political agents in their own right."

While the charges leveled by Masur and Robin are hard to argue with, they take on a different character when considered in light of Lincoln's Hollywood predecessors. The online roundtable discussion about the film conducted by The Atlantic's own Ta-Nehisi Coates—and specifically the contributions of The New York Times' A.O. Scott—shows why. Scott highlights the way in which Lincoln, within the context of prior attempts by Hollywood to depict the Civil War, is a different and indeed more daring film.

Part of a cinematic legacy mostly defined by wistful paeans to the defeated Confederacy, Lincoln is, as Scott notes, "utterly devoid of any sentimentality about the Noble Cause of the South, any revisionist hokum about states' rights or the dignity of tradition, any sighing about the terrible tragedy that pitted brother against brother." Even Lincoln is (accurately) presented as a man tangled-up in profound ambivalence over the righteousness of full African American citizenship. That presentation may be subtle, and it may not go far enough. But it's progress, and in Hollywood, any progress is precious. It's no wonder that, as Bady laments, the film glowingly depicts incremental change.

Finally we turn to The Dark Knight Rises, a film whose politics are far more incoherent and contradictory than either Zero Dark Thirty's or Lincoln's, but one that also provides us with the best glimpse of Hollywood at its most ideological. Because while the conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy is by turns populist, fascist, misanthropic, and anarchistic, it is one thing above all else: radically, thoughtlessly individualistic. Whether the citizens of Gotham are ruled by a violent system of lies from the Left or the Right is immaterial; all is well so long as Batman, the übermensch, remains supreme.

In one of the year's best pieces of writing on pop culture, Jacobin's Gavin Mueller attempted to deconstruct The Dark Knight Rises, to determine whether it was as far-right and as anti-Occupy Wall Street as early viewers said. Mueller grants that, in the film, "Class war tropes abound." But because the villainous Baner's army of mercenaries is just that—and not, á la Occupy Wall Street, band of ragtag anarchists and leftists seeking consensus on how to reach consensus—any possible attempts on Nolan's part to condemn the Zuccotti Park rebels are "a failure." The filmmaker's cardinal sin, in Mueller's telling, is a "lack of any concept of popular power." Gotham is concrete, buildings, tunnels, alleyways; not families, not friends, not communities, not people.

It's individuals, and individuals alone, who matter. In Zero Dark Thirty, an isolated, single-minded CIA agent—a loner that no one believes in—is the chief reason the butcher of 9/11 is lost to time at the bottom of the sea. In Lincoln, it's only through the singular grace, wisdom, and humanity of the 16th president that the greatest evil in American history, an evil few but he sees with true clarity, is finally put to rest. And in The Dark Knight Rises, Gotham is saved by the orphan Bruce Wayne as the pariah Batman. These people do great things. And they do them alone.

This is Hollywood's—and indeed, much of entertainment's—enduring, conservative belief. But it's less ideology than business imperative. Recall the feeling you had the last time you walked out of a really good blockbuster. You probably felt elated, invigorated, like you could master the world all by yourself. It's a good feeling, and it's happening right now at a theater near you.