While conservatives love bashing “Hollywood liberals,” Sunday night’s Oscar telecast showed how little this description applies. From Kathryn Bigelow’s promoting George W. Bush’s argument that the U.S. invaded Iraq to protect Americans, to the disproportionate acclaim given to films exalting the military, to the exclusion of Michael Moore’s Capitalism, A Love Story
from the documentary nominees, Hollywood now largely avoids any hint of progressive social analysis. The most common praise heaped on the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker was that it took no side in the conflict, a remarkable admission of moral cowardice.
True, Bigelow’s win was a milestone for female directors, though it is unlikely to alter the overwhelming male dominance of that profession. And while seeing African-Americans win Oscars gave the event a liberal patina, most blacks remain relegated to roles requiring an African-American ( Jamie Foxx playing Ray Charles), while Latino roles are as scarce as ever despite their rising share of the U.S. population.
Reframing Iraq in Bush’s Terms
He’s no longer in office, but former President George W. Bush has finally won Hollywood over to his side. Karl Rove himself could not have crafted a more effective promotion of the United States invasion of Iraq than to have the first Oscar-winning female director repeatedly praise our troops in Iraq for keeping Americans safe.
I doubt that any of the massive media in attendance asked Kathryn Bigelow, who claimed troops are in Iraq to keep America safe, what threat Iraq posed to the United States prior to our invasion. Better to make believe that American soldiers are always a force for good, and never a part of militaristic adventures killing millions of innocent civilians in Vietnam or Iraq.
I take strong issue with
Michael Moore and others over the political impact of The Hurt Locker
. While Moore claims its message is that “war is stupid and senseless and insane,” millions more heard Bigelow’s message that United States troops are in Iraq to protect Americans than will ever see the film.
And I disagree that seeing movies showing the insanity of military conflict makes Americans anti-war. We’ve had dozens if not hundreds of such films (remember Platoon
?) and yet the United States in 2010 is fighting wars in multiple countries, and has a larger military budget than the next ten leading countries combined.
The American film industry produces war movies at a record clip, despite a steadily decreasing fraction of its population experiencing such conflicts. And the victory for The Hurt Locker
will keep the war films coming, though do not expect to see Hollywood make a film criticizing U.S. military adventurism -- anytime soon.
Filmmakers Detached from Real Life
Bigelow’s perspective on war reminds me of Michael Cimino’s The Deerhunter
, which won Best Picture and Best Director awards in 1978. Cimino’s film also highlighted the horrors of war, and included a controversial scene where North Vietnamese soldiers force American soldiers to play Russian Roulette.
The invented scene outraged Vietnamese activists, who felt it unfairly portrayed the North Vietnamese as vicious and sadistic murderers, rather than as native troops defending their land against a foreign army.
The same week as The Deerhunter
won the Best Picture Oscar, I was at a long-scheduled event with Jane Fonda on the UC Berkeley campus. Fonda had just won Best Actress for her role in the very anti-war film, Coming Home
, and during question time an angry Vietnamese activist asked her to explain what he described as Cimino’s “racist” film.
Fonda replied that Cimino does not pay close attention to the politics of real world events, but lives in the world of movies. She felt he liked the dramatic power of the Russian Roulette scene, and its broader social message was not something he even considered.
Bigelow obviously admires troops serving in Iraq, but appears oblivious to the fact that they have no business being there. So she falls back on the Bush canard that they are protecting Americans, when in fact even Barack Obama has repeatedly acknowledged that the Iraq invasion made our nation less safe.
American filmmakers churn out war movies because it is so easy to build an emotional catharsis, and war zones are among the few remaining venues for the male bonding otherwise missing in our highly competitive society. Such films come off as serious without having to address more sticky contemporary social issues (like the corporate downsizing addressed in Up in the Air
, whose box office grosses did not match lofty reviews, and was never seriously considered a potential Best Picture winner).
Three of the five best screenplay nominees were war films, and no other country comes close to the United States in either the number of films about military conflict, or in percentage of the overall production. We are a nation entranced by war, befitting a country that has not had foreign troops on its soil since the War of 1812.
While Sunday’s Oscar show gave many high-profile opportunities to African-Americans, Latinos remain missing from major Hollywood films. This continued brown-out of a rising share of the U.S. population is curious, but the issue is completely ignored by the entertainment media, which apparently is satisfied so long as Jennifer Lopez is trotted out to bestow an award.
But the absence of Latinos plays into the larger detachment from contemporary social problems that now characterizes the American film industry. That’s why Michael Moore’s brilliant analysis
of capitalism was not nominated, and why the cameras quickly switched away as the producer of the Oscar winning documentary on saving the dolphins held up a banner giving the number viewers could text to help the cause.
If Hollywood cannot even abide the politically safe saving the dolphins campaign, there’s no reason to expect future films about social inequality, the Wall Street rip-offs, or other topics. Instead we have Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks collaborating on yet another depiction of the Pacific battles during World War II, and Matt Damon filming yet another war film, The Green Zone
The United States economy has long been built on military spending, and the film industry now sees a rosy future in the ongoing promotion of war.
Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century