The Oscar ceremony on Feb. 24 may be Hollywood’s time for self-celebration. But this year at least, it will be Washington’s night to shine.
Thursday’s Academy Award nominations announcement presented a veritable hymn to the nation’s capital, from the 12 nominations for “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s chronicle of the 16th president bullying the 13th Amendment through a fractious Congress, and Ben Affleck’s “Argo” (seven nominations), about a nervy CIA mission to rescue American officials caught in Tehran during the 1979 hostage crisis, to “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s taut, complex portrayal of the 10-year military and intelligence effort to track down Osama bin Laden.
“Lincoln,” “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” are undeniably deserving of their nominations on aesthetic, narrative and technical grounds. Each was on my top 10 list for 2012, with “Zero Dark Thirty” taking top honors. Each tells an engrossing, superbly crafted story that plunges viewers into otherwise opaque and unknowable worlds made distant by time, secrecy or both.
But what should gratify Washington-area filmgoers most about these slices of D.C. history is not that they’re just set here, but that they so enthusiastically celebrate institutions more often mired in dysfunction and public malodor.
From the banal, boring and mundane hours spent in front of a computer in “Zero Dark Thirty” to the downright disreputable legislative shenanigans In “Lincoln,” the day-to-day lives of the politicians and personnel who work here have been, if not romanticized, at least elevated into captivating drama.
What delicious irony that “Lincoln,” which featured a galvanizing title performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, should pay homage to presidential politicking and legislative sausage-making precisely at a time when, back in 21st-century real life, Congress is polling lower in popularity than head lice and Nickelback.
The very gamesmanship and posturing that bring modern-day citizens to despair about the system are played for affectionate chuckles in “Lincoln,” with the great man himself engaging in shrewd horse-trading for votes and enlisting colorfully scurrilous pols to make patronage deals (always preserving White House deniability). As a lesson in how idealism and realpolitik can intersect with edifying results, “Lincoln” suggests that there's hope for democracy in spite of its pettier angels — or, at least, that today’s hyperpartisanship, discord and gridlock may one day be considered Oscar-worthy.
Just as improbable as a feel-good movie about Congress might be a good-guy movie about the CIA in 1970s Iran, where just two decades earlier the agency had helped to orchestrate the removal of the country’s democratically elected president, Mohammad Mosaddegh.
That event is depicted in a smart prologue to “Argo,” which dramatizes a long-classified case wherein CIA operative Tony Mendez dreamed up a scheme to rescue a group of American diplomats who escaped the U.S. Embassy when it was stormed by Islamist revolutionaries in 1979, but who were subsequently trapped in the home of the Canadian ambassador in Tehran.
For baby boomers and others used to thinking of the CIA as the bad guys, or at least as the not-always-very-good guys, Affleck’s alternately tense and mordantly funny adventure offers a far more flattering portrait. That unfortunate Mosaddegh business is swiftly forgotten as we watch Mendez (played by Affleck himself) meet with his colleagues at Langley, huddle with Hollywood producers to dream up a fake movie to shoot, and use cunning, creativity and impressive show-biz chops to spirit his charges out of Iran without so much as a coup d’etat.
The CIA portrayed in “Zero Dark Thirty,” which Bigelow directed from a script by Mark Boal, isn’t nearly as valorous as Mendez’s crafty derring-do depicted in “Argo.” (Bizarrely, neither Affleck or Bigelow received best-director nominations for executing two of 2012’s most impressive tonal and technical achievements.)
After opening in New York and Los Angeles nearly a month ago, the film finally arrives in Washington on Friday in the midst of a firestorm, with some politicians and journalists accusing it of glorifying or misrepresenting the role that torture played in the hunt for bin Laden. The film’s early scenes of a black-site detainee being waterboarded, leashed like a dog and sexually humiliated are indeed grisly — made more unsettling by what immediately precedes them, a preamble that consists of a black screen and the sound of desperate emergency calls made on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
That prologue makes clear the context of fear and revenge that led to the “enhanced interrogation techniques” of the early U.S. detainee program. But those techniques also become the context themselves in “Zero Dark Thirty,” in which torture is portrayed as a brutal and ultimately futile piece of an operation that spanned several years, two administrations, vigorous policy debates and multiple methods.
Indeed, it’s those other methods — bribery, bluffing, data mining, cellphone tracking, image analysis, old-fashioned hunches — that are shown to be most effective in “Zero Dark Thirty.” If anything, rather than portray torture as some kind of silver bullet, the film shows its grievous practical and psychic costs in the form of fatal setbacks, wasted time and its demoralizing toll on prisoners, practitioners and, more obliquely, American ideals.
Like “Lincoln” and “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty” delivers an improbable ode to process — in the CIA’s case, one that is messy as it is meticulous, often misguided and, by the film’s powerful final scene, morally unresolved. There’s no spiking the ball in “Zero Dark Thirty,” which never demonizes its protagonists but doesn’t present them as unalloyed heroes, either. Like the era it depicts, “Zero Dark Thirty” has been subject to multiple, often contradictory, interpretations, with some seeing it as pure propaganda and others seeing it as a far more ambiguous portrayal of ends, means and indeterminate outcomes.
That “Zero Dark Thirty” is open to such radically disparate interpretations is a testament to Bigelow’s command of a vast cinematic canvas, one that’s simultaneously dense and porous, allowing the audience to live inside the dizzyingly complex world she creates and emerge with its own conclusions and, just as often, unanswered questions.
Bigelow’s faith in the sophistication of her audience is inspiring, even if in the case of her most hysterical detractors — not to mention the Academy voters who snubbed her this year — it hasn’t always been earned. But she knows that regardless of how many Oscars “Zero Dark Thirty” earns next month, it’s ultimately viewers who will accept or reject it — as art, entertainment or a meaningful cultural touchstone. In order to make those distinctions, it’s necessary to watch the film actively and critically, immersed in its riveting simulacrum of recent history but alert to the fact that it’s not a literal re-creation, let alone endorsement, of the events it’s dramatizing.
It’s a tricky conceptual balancing act, one that Bigelow herself engages in as an artist and one she challenges her audience to join. Like its fellow nominees, “Zero Dark Thirty” celebrates process. More than any of them, it demands that viewers be part of the process, and keep it going.