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March 5, 2013 / glencoyote

History and the Movies

This year’s Academy Award nominees provided an unusual number of films with stories anchored in American history. Argo, Django Unchained, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty all tell stories whose interest turns, at least in part, on their interpretive claims. Not surprisingly, the Academy managed to crown the least offensive and most predictable of these films – Argo – the winner. Progressive critics have lambasted Argo for its whitewash of CIA activity in Iran and it is interesting that both Argo and ZDT are crafted to turn blowback into victory. But we don’t need to dwell on Argo, no honest person could possibly have seen that film and thought, here is the best picture of the year – except as a cynical, and astute, handicapping of the Oscars.

Zero Dark Thirty is the more powerful and controversial film. Despite the protestations of such disparate commentators as Andrew Sullivan and Michael Moore who have absolved ZDT of torture guilt, the film draws us into a maelstrom of patriotic emotion that turns the hunt for Osama into a pure retributive act symbolizing the strength of a nation wronged, but now avenged. Splitting hairs about whether or not torture is shown to provide actionable intelligence is beside the point, waterboarding and other tortures are just part of the program when a great nation is on the hunt for the enemy. That the film opens with the craven use of voices from 9/11, while avoiding all reference to American foreign policy toward the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia in particular, is a comparatively small point.

Don’t get me wrong, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty were both entertaining and engaging films, and ZDT was riveting. But the film that reminded us of the purpose of history most effectively was clearly Django. If the purpose of digital history is to help “people to experience. . . and follow an argument about an historical problem” then Django is a master course in digital history. Laid out in Tarantino’s graphic novel style so that we are not spared any of the biff, pow, bam, Django presents the case for both racial justice and retribution as straightforwardly as it can be done. The cathartic effect of the story on the audience was unvarnished, with the added benefit that the victory was well earned. If it did not provide the sweeping socio-economic context, it got racism exactly right. No global solution? I guess we will just have to take it one plantation at a time.

[Side note: the best two movies of the season were not historical treatments, but rather explorations of the world of children. If you haven’t seen Beasts of the Southern Wild or Moonrise Kingdom, they are both outstanding and their crafty innocence will cleanse the palate.]

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