Hollywood’s critics are in high dudgeon. The motion-picture industry has sunk into a moral morass, they say, one that threatens our national self-understanding and traduces simple decency. Only this time, those critics are not religious conservatives bemoaning the cinema’s handling of sex and violence. Rather, movie studios and the creative class find themselves under assault from their left flank for producing art deemed to be unacceptable for mass consumption and rife with politically offensive messages. The hackles of these new moralists have been raised by three successful and popular films of 2012, all of which were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
First there is Argo, which tells the story of how a CIA operation extracted six American diplomats hiding in Iran after the seizure of the embassy and the taking of 52 hostages in 1978. It was a box-office hit (making $114 million and counting), a critical smash (96 percent favorable reviews, according to the website Rotten Tomatoes), and the best-picture winner at the Golden Globes. Far from a right-wing missive, the film opens with a decidedly anti-Western take on the events leading up to the downfall of the Shah of Iran and ignores Jimmy Carter’s many errors that helped lead to the crisis.
The film’s virtues as a piece of popular art and its nominal liberalism are of little concern to the new moralists. Writing in Slate, Kevin B. Lee argued the film is “not merely overrated, but reprehensible.” Lee allows that he would have enjoyed Argo more if it better hewed to his worldview—“my disgust wouldn’t be as intense if it weren’t for the potentially great film suggested by Argo’s opening sequence … [which] gives a compelling (if sensationalized) account of how the CIA’s meddling with Iran’s government over three decades led to a corrupt and oppressive regime”—before blasting the picture for its “retrograde ‘white Americans in peril’ storyline” that depicts “oppressed Iranians as a raging, zombie-like horde.”
Argo’s crime, therefore, is showing the barbarousness of some Iranian people—and the sacking of an embassy is nothing if not barbaric—as well as the all-too-real hatred for the West that pervaded Iran at the time. It is also morally wanting because, in the words of Slant’s Andrew Schenker, it is “an increasingly blinkered tale of the heroic CIA versus the Muslim menace.” The fact that the film does not depict the Central Intelligence Agency as an evildoer, as most Hollywood fare does, marks it as immoral.
Schenker describes Argo as “undeniably rousing, but deeply irresponsible.” It suffers from “Reel Bad Arab syndrome, in which every Iranian face is either filled with hatred or suspicion.” This is an odd complaint, given that the Americans and their Canadian saviors are protected by a friendly Iranian housekeeper whom we later see escaping from Iran into Iraq as our American heroes party in midair.
It’s an important scene: The freedom of those Americans, and their return to a life of privilege few Iranians could even imagine, is bought by a poor native who becomes a refugee in another country destined to come into conflict with the West. There is a complexity here, one that could be read in several lights if the film’s critics were not blinded by their own instinctual prejudices.
Lincoln has endured similar barbs. According to the new moralists, the Great Emancipator is a myth, a legend designed to strip slaves of their agency. Slaves, we are now led to understand, were responsible for securing their own freedom. The 13th Amendment—the hard-fought passage of which is the focus of Lincoln—was of little import.
This notion has garnered much popularity in the academy in recent years, but screenwriter Tony Kushner and director Steven Spielberg fail to embrace it fully: They depict but one scene of black soldiers fighting for their lives. For this they have been bombarded by the slings and arrows of the aggrieved.
Lincoln is “a movie about old white men in beards and wigs heroically working together to save grateful black people,” writes Aaron Bady in the neo-Marxist Jacobin. “I suppose it’s easier and more fun to thank white saviors than to think about those that they left behind.”
Writing in the New York Times, Kate Masur is similarly nonplussed that Spielberg’s “purpose is more to entertain and inspire than to educate.” The film is an opportunity squandered, she says. “It’s disappointing that in a movie devoted to explaining the abolition of slavery in the United States, African-American characters do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.”
The philistine’s lament that an artist must make the art he wants to view or else it is invalid pervades much of the new moralists’ criticism of Argo and Lincoln. That lament is loudest, however, in the attacks on Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s take on the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The movie has been aggressively attacked for failing to conform to the liberal narrative of the War on Terror and the killing of 9/11’s mastermind. The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald had been on the warpath even before the film premiered: He was flabbergasted that critics could praise Zero Dark Thirty despite the fact that “the film glorifies torture by claiming—falsely—that waterboarding and other forms of coercive interrogation tactics were crucial, even indispensable in finding Bin Laden.”
After being taken to task for criticizing a work of art without having seen it, Greenwald attended a preview. He was not placated.
“There is zero opposition expressed to torture,” Greenwald complained. “None of the internal objections from the FBI or even CIA is mentioned.” Thousands of words later, he pronounced Bigelow no better than Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl.
A coterie of liberals joined Greenwald in his denunciations. Mother Jones’s Adam Serwer sarcastically tweeted: Bigelow “made a pro-torture propaganda film. But she’s so tall and striking!” The Huffington Post’s Dan Froomkin couched his criticism in explicitly moralistic terms: “Don’t encourage film-making that at best offers ambiguity about torture, and at worst endorses it,” he wrote. “Spend the two and a half hours and the $10 on something more valuable, and moral.”
Andrew Sullivan—who, like Greenwald and Serwer, hadn’t seen the film when he levied many of his criticisms on his blog at the Daily Beast—worried that “scenes of grotesque torture are
apparently spliced with vivid audio from 9/11 in the opening of the movie: a morally fraught connection.” He softened his stance after viewing the picture, downgrading Bigelow and Boal from “torture apologists” to “cowards.”
The left has reserved special vituperation for Zero Dark Thirty because it disrupts their worldview. They have long argued that certain interrogative techniques used by the CIA to thwart future attacks are not only immoral but also ineffective. If you show these harsh tactics working—tactics that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former National Clandestine Service head Jose Rodriguez, among others, have stated played a role in the capture of Bin Laden—you are engaged in an immoral defense of “torture.”
You can point out that depiction does not equal endorsement, as Bigelow herself has done. You can also point out that Zero Dark Thirty is the least triumphant version of this film that could have been made. There is no spiking the football here. Its closing shot—a simple close-up of the film’s heroine, sitting alone, breaking into tears as she realizes she has nowhere to go now that Bin Laden is dead—could easily be construed as arguing that the American pursuit of revenge against al-Qaeda’s leader was a soul-warping, unfulfilling triumph.
Such arguments hold little sway with these critics. One almost gets the sense that they view them as simply invalid, a kind of dodge. It is telling that the critics’ harshest attacks have been levied in moral and political, rather than aesthetic, terms—and that many of them felt comfortable critiquing without having seen the work of art in question. This is a practice liberals have long argued is a conservative defect.
Franklin Foer, writing in Slate in 1997, took conservatives to task for being unable to view art through any lens other than politics. He singled out the then new Weekly Standard for particular scorn. “When Standard reviewers attack authors, even if there is no explicit political argument, you assume there is some sort of political vendetta at work,” Foer, now the editor of the New Republic, wrote. “It is impossible to parse out whether they dislike something because it is bad art or bad politics. And they spend so much time immersed in the political arguments that they often omit aesthetic judgments altogether.”
This “but-it’s-art!” argument—a longstanding and popular defense of the left against (oft unwarranted) conservative attacks on works of art—is now casually dismissed by the Glenn Greenwalds of the world as “the ‘art’ excuse.”
It is particularly ironic that “ambiguity” has become a bad word to Froomkin and his cohort. Traditionally, liberals tend to elevate themselves above conservatives because they think they are able to view the world with far more complexity than those on the right. In a provocatively headlined 2008 essay for Psychology Today asking, “Is political conservatism a form of mild insanity?” Dr. William Todd Schultz once warned his pupils against adopting the worldview of conservatives: “I always tell my students that tolerance of ambiguity is one especially excellent mark of psychological maturity. It isn’t a black-and-white world.”
That essay was cited with joy by many liberal outlets, but the nature of the attacks on Zero Dark Thirty suggests that there is more than an element of projection at work here. Liberals don’t embrace ambiguity; rather, they do not like the moral certainties of conservatives while seeing nothing wrong with their own. When one lives in a bubble of one’s own making—when one resides in the echo chamber, hearing nothing but agreeable arguments and haughtily dismissing opponents as either stupid or evil (or stupidly evil)—art that pierces that bubble provokes a reaction that is not always logical.
The critics of these films want popular art to reflect a society of their choosing—one in which the Iranian people weren’t chanting “Death to America!” as our embassy burned and our nationals were forced to play Russian roulette; one in which the efforts of white males to end slavery were slight; and one in which harsh interrogation techniques played no role in the capture of Osama bin Laden.
These critics have a contingent in the artistic community. Martin Sheen and Ed Asner have attached their names to a letter circulating among Academy Award voters, begging them to shut Zero Dark Thirty out of the Oscar race. In a masterpiece of concern-trolling—an Internet neologism that roughly translates to disingenuously criticizing someone by pretending to be looking out for their own good—Sheen and his fellow signatories hope to keep the film from taking home Oscar gold because “one of the brightest female directors in the business is in danger of becoming part of the system.” Not to worry, though; for her crimes against the liberal consensus, Bigelow was denied an Oscar nomination for best director, as was Ben Affleck, who helmed Argo.
The ascent of this new breed of popular-culture finger-waggers does not necessarily portend the death of criticism on the left. But the closing of the left-wing mind must not be discounted as an aberration and should be fiercely countered, if for no other reason than that assenting to it ensures the annihilation of what little ideological diversity there is to be found in the arts.