From ‘Argo’ to ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ What Is Hollywood’s Foreign Policy?

In Foreign Policy, Joshua E. Keating asked an interesting, and I think important, question: does Hollywood have a foreign policy? Based on the movies of the last half-century, he argues that Hollywood’s deeply skeptical of the rest of the world and very ready to acknowledge security threats to the United States, but deeply skeptical of the United States’ response to everything from the rise of Communism to terrorism:

But it’s fair to say that the kind of prestige films that get nominated for Oscars tend to come from one side of the political spectrum. From Vietnam-era dramas like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket to the growing number of Iraq movies like Green Zone and 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, the most celebrated movies have tended to take a critical look at America’s wars, often questioning the motives of senior officials and examining the psychological effects on the men who fight them. From Jack Nicholson’s sneering colonel in A Few Good Men to the cynical incompetence of the officers in Three Kings, the military tends not to get too positive a portrayal when the movie is about an actual war, rather than an alien invasion. (World War II movies are a possible exception, but even films like Saving Private Ryan are more about how the war affected individuals than military achievement.)

Not that the civilians fare much better. Whether they’re colluding with the communists (The Manchurian Candidate), whacking their own people (The Parallax View), concocting a war to cover up a president’s improprieties (Wag the Dog) or standing idly and incompetently by in the midst of a genocide (The Killing Fields), Hollywood has taken a dim view of U.S. policymakers and diplomats. (Steven Soderbergh’s virus thriller Contagion, entirely ignored by the Academy, is a notable exception.) They get off easy compared to global corporations, invariably the villains in films like Syriana and The Constant Gardener.

This skepticism has carried over into the depictions of terrorism in post-9/11 films. Steven Spielberg’s Munich, for instance, certainly can’t be accused of sympathy for jihadists, but took a tone of ambivalence about the ethics of counterterrorism that led critics like the New Republic’s Leon Weiseltier to accuse it of “the sin of equivalence” between the Israeli spies and the Palestinian terrorists they were hunting. Questions of accuracy and the torture debate aside, Zero Dark Thirty probably belongs in the same category: a movie with no hesitation about the evil of terrorism that also asks what a society loses by bending its own moral code to prevent it.

It’s worth noting that Hollywood’s vision of foreign policy is entirely conflict-oriented. Movies are all over wars, or the lead-up to wars. There are plenty of portrayals of soldiers on the way to a battlefield, at said battlefield, or recovering from the effects of their time in a war zone, though the latter normally focus more on soldiers’ personal reactions than any of the institutions set up to support them or the failure of those institutions. If we’re not talking about wars, movies are often exploring the lead-ups to them, particularly in the form of espionage. Argo was the rare movie that portrayed diplomats as well as members of the Central Intelligence Agency. There’s very little conversation about trade, or cultural exchange—The Sapphires, about Australian singers who perform in USO tours during Vietnam, is a rare exception—banking, immigration (except in documentaries), technology, or trans-state actors like the United Nations. The fact that Game of Thrones takes on so many of these soft-power issues, at least in the novels, is one of the reasons it’s so unusual. This focus on the military and on security issues makes a certain amount of sense: war is among the highest stakes that any set of characters can face, and ticking time bomb scenarios or climactic battles make for strong three-act structures. But focusing on those issues alone means that Hollywood is leaving lots of kinds of stories on the table, and picking ones that are more likely to present other countries as dangerous, inhospitable places.

And that’s a bias that runs contrary to Hollywood’s own interests. Beyond what it shows on its screens, the biggest factor driving Hollywood’s actual foreign policy as an industry is trade barriers, whether it’s China’s limits on the number of movies produced by other countries that can air legally on Chinese screens in a given year, or the need to accomodate content restrictions in countries with state-run ratings and censorship systems. Keating mentions China’s leverage to get movies cut to meet its standards before they air in the United States, but it’s an issue worth exploring further, especially on issues like Middle Eastern funders’ comfort with higher levels of violence than sexuality. Hollywood’s foreign policy might have initially been driven by the preferences and contradictions of American audiences’ feelings about our country’s foreign entanglements. But other audiences’ preferences, and the preferences of their governments, will matter more and more as the international audiences account for more and more of box office receipts.