Let’s say you want to make a movie about military might. In order to do this with the appropriate amount of realism, you need to acquire your materiel: your tanks and planes and so forth. There’s a certain interpretation of the Uncanny Valley theory that sort of applies here; you can get away with really cheesy CGI and effects if what you’re doing is farcical or futuristic, but if you’re making a film that purports to be remotely serious and self-important, the visual grammar of cinema sort of dictates that you use good ol’ American steel. Doing so requires (at minimum) the cooperation of the powers that be and their tacit approval of your work - which in turns make for a far tighter set of creative control guidelines than I personally feel are appropriate for an external party to demand from anybody making any kind of artistic statement and wanting to be taken seriously.
(I concede the point that The Military, per se, isn’t the only available source of military hardware, but the other entities involved aren’t far removed from the actual armed forces - there’s a reason they call it the “military-industrial complex,” after all.)
Now. I wouldn’t go so far as to call “Argo” the worst offender, even, of the movies nominated for Best Picture. This is all just endemic of a greater problem, which is the way the military commercializes and brands itself; it obviously doesn’t have any competition, not unless we want to start debating the finer points of modern geopolitics. It’s in the business of selling itself to us - and, transitively speaking, selling us to the rest of the world - even though there’s no plausible alternative product for us to consider, no less overbearing version of America-as-empire for the rest of the world to contemplate. (Yet.)
There is a telling moment late in Ben Affleck’s speech where he’s going through his thank-you list and being very nervous and gracious and keyed up about the whole thing, and rightly so. As he’s thanking “our friends in Canada,” you can tell that he’s trying very hard not to utter the phrase “our friends in Iran,” even though they’d easily qualify by the standards he’s just set for thanking people. Instead he mumbles something about “the people in Iran, and the terrible situation they’re in,” and I cringe a little. But what is he supposed to say? To a certain degree, you have to wonder how in thrall he is to the party line.
Again, I’m not talking about the freedom of speech stuff here. Nobody seems particularly interested in abrogating that. I’m talking about where do you get a fucking tank. Low-level problems. It’s not an accident that in the military, they call what they do “logistics.” So much of it is just the process of moving and manipulating machinery and infrastructure - the guns and soldiers and MREs are the minor, inconsequential figures in all this, the replaceable parts, the consumables. You want to make a movie with a realistic-looking gun, it can be done. Go to the dollar store and see for yourself. Get a black non-Sharpie-brand Sharpie if you don’t like the orange barrel.
But if you want an aircraft carrier?
Most people, I realize, find my political beliefs to be sort of insufferably left-wing, which is mostly why I made a conscious decision to be less strident in my daily life. (It also helped that I outgrew my early twenties.) I actually consider myself a pragmatist. I can somewhat grudgingly see the point in having a well-equipped military and state intelligence at this particular juncture in American history. (To be inelegant about it, I could also somewhat grudgingly see the point of going out and buying paper towels if you’d just spilled a gallon of milk all over your kitchen floor.)
The chilling effects out of this are twofold, I think: one, that it may eventually become impossible to make a movie that’s got something incisive to say about the consequences of American military power in the language of said military power. This is very bad, not just for aesthetic reasons but for what it presages about other forms of media, specifically forms that are governed by ethical and integral standards. Two, by heralding this art - art that manipulates its own narrative to present a counterfactual version of events that glorifies the CIA, art that’s generally pretty ugly and hamfisted about the way it depicts heroic Americans and barbaric Iranians, etc. - we’re setting some very troubling precedents for what we’ll accept as filmgoers and, more importantly, as a critical academy.
When Michelle Obama, apparently joined by the ensemble of “H.M.S. Pinafore,” appeared on screen before a gin-soaked Jack Nicholson to announce the winner, you sort of had to figure it was going to go one of two ways - and had it been “Zero Dark Thirty” winning Best Picture, you had to figure they’d break out the big guy. “Argo” is a caper, of course (and frankly a pretty good one), but it’s just that veneer of comedy that seems to shield it a bit from the criticisms levied against “Zero Dark Thirty,” and I don’t expect that its victory will result in any kind of extended collective hand-wringing. Honestly, I’m not even all that concerned about how self-congratulatory “Argo” is about the power of movie-industry magic; Hollywood is always at its most endearing when it has its head stuck that far up its own ass. My concerns are abstract, and probably unanswerable in an immediate context - but they’re worth considering, I think, when watching films like this.
And honestly, I’m just really glad they didn’t give it to “Life of Pi.”
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