Not long after President Obama delivers his State of the Union address this month, Hollywood will offer its own annual summation of the national Zeitgeist, the Oscars. They’ve lately been an irrelevancy: Best Pictures like The King’s Speech and The Artist have been footnotes, nostalgic European footnotes at that, to America’s kinetic pop culture in the day of Homeland. Not this year. Whatever the explanation—and little in show business happens by design—the movie industry has reconnected with the country. It has produced no fewer than four movies that have provoked animated, often rancorous public debate: Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Lincoln, and Django Unchained, a film that pushes so many hot buttons you can’t quite believe it was made. All are nominated for Best Picture. All toy with American history. Though none can muster the commercial might of superhero franchises like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, all are box-office as well as critical hits. And all are worth seeing, whatever their failings.
To some observers, those failings include the many factual liberties the films take with real-life events, from the breathless, utterly invented Tehran-airport finale that delivers American hostages to safety in Argo to the manufactured suspense grafted onto the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in Lincoln. But none of these movies purports to be a documentary, and in Django, Quentin Tarantino mocks any pretense to factual fidelity with his first, erroneous title card declaring that 1858 is “two years before the Civil War.” However inaccurate these films may be about the history they dramatize, both they and the arguments surrounding them add up to an accurate picture of our own divided America as it stands at the dawn of Obama’s second term. And though Obama appears in only one of the four—in a bit of archival 60 Minutes video in the background of a shot in Zero Dark Thirty—the political context and climate of his presidency are present in them all. These movies may or may not be for the ages, but future viewers looking back to see what our age was like may find them invaluable.
Sometimes by happenstance, though usually by design, these films have waded into both the domestic and foreign conflicts that roil Americans: gun violence, government dysfunction, and the dark side of the national-security state, along with the hardy perennial of race. Second Amendment enthusiasts who blame Newtown and Aurora on Hollywood are surely delighted to discover that they can accuse all four movies of inciting future bloodbaths. (Pardon the spoiler alert: The hero of one film, Abraham Lincoln, and the villain of another, Osama bin Laden, are assassinated.) Lincoln and Django, wildly different takes on America’s original sin of slavery, have each ruffled racial sensibilities. Critics and historians have faulted Lincoln for sins of omission (where are the African-Americans, slave and free, and abolitionists who prodded a tardy Lincoln to embrace their cause?) and for shortchanging its few black characters in contrast to the vividly drawn white men making legislative history. As for Django, Spike Lee set off a Twitter tempest when he slammed Tarantino for vandalizing African-American history with spaghetti-Western gags and a profuse use of the word nigger. Lee has refused to see Django, though Lincoln, which also uses the N-word, if more sparingly, has escaped his censure.
Of the four films, Zero Dark Thirty has by far aroused the most noise—at least in the press. In a show of bipartisan movie criticism, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee from John McCain to Dianne Feinstein publicly faulted the film for portraying “coercive interrogation” as playing a role in tracking down bin Laden. Journalists like Jane Mayer and Steve Coll, who covered the Bush-Cheney axis of evil after 9/11, have criticized the movie for rationalizing, minimizing, or implicitly endorsing torture. “Zero Dark Thirty Is Osama bin Laden’s Last Victory Over America” was the headline on Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone blog.
Conservatives have praised the film for the same reasons liberals attack it, though what liberals (myself among them) consider torture they categorize as effective and legal intelligence-gathering. Some on the right have also rallied around Argo, a slick, apolitical thriller set amid the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979–81. With Benghazi boiling last fall, the National Review argued that Argo was an “October surprise” poised to hurt Obama’s reelection chances by reminding voters of a previous Democratic president (Jimmy Carter) flummoxed by terrorism. When Academy voters denied Best Director nominations to Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck, the directors of Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, the right saw a Swift Boating. “Make a movie in which Americans act heroically against Islamic enemies of the United States, and you lose” was how John Podhoretz summed up the directors’ plight in the New York Post.