Wednesday, March 6, 2013

History on Celluloid

And, the oscar goes to...

History.  In all it's glory and ugliness.  Hollywood, for all its preceding fluff and high-budget pabulum has finally gone the route of truth and substance. least, more or less.

Seth Macfarland's adolescent obscenities aside, three Oscar favorites this time round were Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and Argo.  All three exceptionally well produced, well-written and well-acted dramatizations of events in American History, and all three, each in its own way, bitingly relevant to these crazy, turbulent and divided times we find ourselves living in.  How accurate was each film, historically?  Who knows?

In the case of Lincoln, obviously, there's no one left alive to testify to mistakes or inaccuracies.  In the case of Zero Dark Thirty and to a lesser extent Argo, there are top secret intelligence agencies and at least questionable legality involved, so we may never know.

One thing's for sure:  each film hit close to home, emotionally, though no doubt in different ways, for each American.  Lincoln painted a haunting and very personal portrait of a president presiding over a moment in history.  A president who had the toughest decision of his career to make, and all of future history as his judge.  A president who, like our current president, had to decide whether to take the risk of making an extremely unpopular and controversial decision while trying to govern a nation still divided in many ways.  The film dealt with the complex, often diabolical political mechanics of Congress, but also set the battle within the soul of each politician, each driven by his own all-too-human needs and each having to decide whether to follow the current of political pressure or dig deep within for the courage to vote the way his conscience told him was right.  The voice of conservatism was front and center stage:  "We are asked to declare equality to those God has not made equal."  Those words and the scenes that followed are still being heard and seen today.  There'll always be people our society finds some excuse not to regard as equal.  And, the fight goes on forever.

As does war, and the way we depict its lessons and/or delusions on film.  Each war is the crucible of a nation's values and character.  World War II reaffirmed our national values, reflected in all the heroic celluloid visions it spawned over the decades, John Wayne leading the charge.  Vietnam taught us our limits (or, should have) and forced us to question our path and our role in the world.  Questions reflected in darker, more introspective and disturbing films brought to life by the talents of Jane Fonda, Bruce Willis and Tom Cruise.  Argo and Zero Dark Thirty raised the specters of our involvement in the middle east.

Both films attempt to redeem our role in that troubled part of the world, but in very different ways.  Zero Dark Thirty is, in essence, a defense of torture as a legitimate and effective instrument of national defense.  It graphically depicts detainees being tortured in the middle east by American agents.  We see the dark torment of moral conflict in our collective soul through the eyes of a young woman who must witness this torture and then becomes obsessed with putting the information obtained thereby to practical use.  Through its extremely questionable reconstruction of historical timelines derived from sources impossible to confirm, the film claims that information extracted under torture, which led U.S. intelligence down many blind alleys and dead ends for years, later payed off through a lucky break caught by a sharp-eyed American agent.  (The guy they thought was dead was alive.  Oh, was his brother who was dead.  Seriously?)  In short:  Bush was right to torture people, and we got Bin Ladin in spite of Obama, not because of him.  Putting aside the question of whether Bin Ladin was even militarily relevant by the time our military killed him.  The climactic closing scenes, with their creepy, shadowy, infra-red Blair Witch type camera's eye view was artfully done and gripping.  But, we're left with wondering if we've been clubbed in the face with the brutal, unvarnished truth or scammed with skilled illusion.

And, speaking of illusion...Argo depicts a more humanitarian mission, in which a group of innocent Americans are smuggled out of Iran at the height of the hostage crisis through an elaborately staged scam:  a fake movie.  The two films frame their stories in  different historical contexts.  While Zero Dark Thirty's view of history begins with 9/11, Argo's goes back a bit further.  It opens with a history lesson for the audience. depicting Iran as a nation  with an ancient history of successive tyrants whose first daring experiment in democracy was derailed by American interference in installing the despotic Shah.  The U.S.-backed dictator's barbaric cruelties in repressing dissent are as graphically depicted as the tortures in Zero Dark Thirty, putting the raging Iranian lust for revenge against America in clear and stark perspective.  In that troubling frame, the film takes us through many very well-timed moments of suspense skillfully embodied in events as simple as phone calls and tense, heated moments at customs desks while seconds tick down to the decisive moment.  The heroes don't shoot or torture the bad guys.  They scam them with illusion...they appeal to the child-like instinct in all human beings.  The American tricksters buy time by showing tough Iranian soldiers sketches of the the phony sci-fi fim "Argo," momentarily bringing smiles to their cruel, angry faces.  The film is redemptive in its confession that we've made mistakes but can still learn from them.  And, in its assertion that we can save innocent lives without necessarily resorting to violence.  That mood is nicely embodied in the closing scene of the hero visiting his estranged wife, holding out hope for reconciliation.  Zero Dark Thirty leaves us only with the morally ambiguous closing scene of the heroine crying alone in the empty belly of a cargo plane.  I for one am glad Argo took home the Oscar.

Yes, our current war, like Vietnam, undeclared, an open-ended quagmire with no clear objectives leaving in its wake a growing list of our dead, more and more dying not of enemy fire but by the hand of those we call our allies, or by suicide, is our current great test, which will be reflected in fiction for some time to come.  I used elements of the moral conflicts and personal suffering of American gulf war veterans in my science fiction novella "Long Haul" and in my upcoming Mocha Memoirs release "Black Goddess."  Fiction is in many ways the avatar of our national consciousness, especially in troubled times like these.

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