On Friday, Motion Picture Association of America president and CEO Christopher Dodd took the stage at the National Press Club to talk about his first several years on the job. It was an interesting talk less because of policy issues that Dodd focused on, or that he discussed during the question-and-answer period, but because of the way he talked about movies, and what they’ve come to mean to him as art during his almost two years at the association. In arguing for movies’ unifying role in a politically divided country, and movies and television as key tools of cultural diplomacy, Dodd’s talk raised some fascinating questions for me about how we approach and analyze movies, and what levels of responsibility we want to assign an art form that claims that potential impact.
Dodd admitted that before coming to the MPAA, “As a father of two very young children, 7, now almost 8, and 11, my movie selections were limited.” But as he’s reconnected with the product that his member companies produce, Dodd made an argument that both serves to burnish the reputation of those companies, and potentially exposes them to higher standards than your average producer of widgets.
“They tell stories, stories that help us make sense of our world and ourselves…Consider the focus on racism in To Kill A Mockingbird or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Dodd said. “The best movies ground us in common values and ideals. America’s a big place, as we all know, with red states and blue states…But gathered together in a darkened theater, regardless of our differences, we become, in spite of our differences, one place.”
The ability of movies to achieve that unity or provoke that kind of thought doesn’t mean that all movies have to meet that aspirational standard. But it does suggest that movies that do aim to tackle big ideas deserve to be taken seriously, which means being examined critically. Often, debates over accuracy get dismissed as nit-picking, which if the only question at stake is whether a movie is a literal translation of historical events or not, is potentially fair. But the questions of why and when movies choose to diverge from the historical record is can be rich ones, particularly when those questions happen in the realm of character interpretation, as in the presentation of President Lincoln’s attitudes toward black Americans in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. As a critic who writes about the politics of entertainment, it’s been exciting to see academics, policy reporters, and political commentators enter the debates around Lincoln, Argo, Django Unchained, and Zero Dark Thirty because their desire to play on this turf is a reaffirmation of the idea that gives life to my career, even if I’m not always thrilled about how these arguments have functioned. The battles over how to interpret Zero Dark Thirty , for example, seem to me to have narrowed down to debates about whether the film is an accurate transcription of a murky historical record, rather than exploring the more revealing questions of how the script and directing choices shape the movie’s message about the immorality of torture, and why Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow felt compelled to portray the movie as an unbiased piece of reportage in the first place. That latter choice in particular says as much about the state of our debate about the use of torture as the movie itself.
If we’re going to take film seriously on the grounds that it has a unique power to influence audiences, we need to examine how well it does at getting audiences to do interpretive work—and leaving them space in which to do it—to open themselves up to new ideas, and to inhabit new perspectives. The blunt statements of opinion writing or cable news appearances, or the clear conclusion-drawing of long-form journalism aren’t necessarily the things that serve those goals well in film, where an indirect approach may lead otherwise-resistant audiences to a point they might not have accepted when presented bluntly, and manifestos can make characters seem like strawmen, rather than flesh-and-blood humans.