Hollywood Bets on Itself and the Future

Academy Awards Reward Global Cinema

Michelle Obama, the first lady of the US, announced the best picture of the year, Argo, directly from the White House. This was a symbolic endorsement of the film by the White House and the use of peaceful methods to resolve an international conflict using covert operations.

The other film about the CIA, Zero Dark Thirty, was shut-out from the Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director category, suggesting that the political controversy surrounding the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ and ‘torture’ took a heavy toll on the film. Clearly, the Hollywood industry was not keen to promote Zero Dark Thirty any further.

Argo, as a counterpoint to Zero Dark Thirty, suggests that any conflicts with Iran in the future can be peacefully resolved moving forward. The symbiotic relationship between art and politics could not be more intimately represented than by the alliance between Hollywood and the CIA.

Argo: When Covert Operations are Peaceful

The movie chronicles the story of storming of the US embassy in Tehran; six foreign-service officials holed up in the nearby home of Canadian ambassador later escape in broad daylight with the help of a covert operation – devised by the CIA operative Tony Mendez (Ben Afleck) and some creative Hollywood producers and movie-makers.

The tagline of the film – “The movie was fake. The mission was real” – does full justice to this thrilling drama. The cinematography relies on historical realism with handheld camera shooting interspersed with actual footage of the 1979 hostage crisis to narrate a story that gripped America and 54 hostages for 444 days from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981.

The crisis led to the ouster of Carter in the 1980 election, the Iran-Contra affair, and built-up the prestige of Ayatollah Khomeini as the Supreme Leader. The reams of news footage accentuate the film with actual documentary evidence and give it the look and feel of a docudrama.

In an interview, Affleck suggested it is difficult to sell a historical film in Hollywood unless it happens to be an action thriller as part of a franchise or a well-funded historical epic. But this film is neither.

“The story was completely unbelievable, only if it was not true,” he said.

The film plot is historically accurate with some dramatization for effect. Yet, even for those who may be familiar with the Iran hostage crisis, there is much to gain from watching this retelling of the inside story. Viewers may feel like they have stepped into the world of Islamic theocracy. Since life has moved at a snail’s pace in Iran, not much has probably changed in the 30 years since the events took place. As Pepe Escobar at this website has commented, “The wall of distrust between Washington DC and Tehran still remains.”

We are neither anywhere near solving the nuclear program stalemate nor sowing the seeds of democracy there. While the recent trade sanctions by the Barack Obama administration have been taking their toll, there is still no deal or rapprochement between US, Iran and Israel.

This is where the satirical aspects of the film offer some levity and perspective. Given the CIA plot to free the housemates from the Canadian embassy included scouting for Iranian locations to shoot a science fiction film, we get an inside view of the world of Hollywood where life imitates art while scripting life.

In this case, the real-life producer, Lester Siegel (played by Alan Arkin), buys a cheap script as a cover for the CIA plot; the real life make-up artist, John Chambers from the Planet of the Apes (played by John Goodman), comes up with the fake production company and double identities for the six housemates. In the end, we all believe it is real because “it works.”

The viewers are left with sharply contrasting views of multiple or clashing worlds:

1. The world of Hollywood make-believe, where freedom of thought and expression fuels creativity at any cost, where what is “fake” is “real” and conventional “social reality” is simply made-up;

2. The covert world of dedicated CIA operatives, often working in a hidden parallel universe, with cryptic codenames, shredders, incinerators and secret tunnels;

3. The world of Iranian revolutionaries, where young impressionable individuals – religious men and veiled women – are busy fighting what they believe to be “the evil empire” at the behest of the theocracy.

When I asked a friend, a former CIA official, about the film, he admitted that often the stated policy may not the same as the covert policy. Culture is a kind of a mass illusion, or a cultural relativist’s dream – perched atop Clifford Geertz’s “turtles all the way down” – only if these divergent worlds did not bleed into each other, gruesomely and violently, as they do in everyday politics and international relations.

By travelling back in time, Argo shows us that while the Western world and most of the Asian liberal democracies have accelerated the pace of change, Iran may be frozen in a time-warp; and given globalization is now the baseline human condition, isolation feels like a painful anachronism. It is not clear whether the film will be released in Iran, but if it is smuggled in through social media or other distribution channels, it may offer some impetus to Iranian democratic impulses.

Life of Pi: A Vote for the Climate Debate

The other surprising move the Academy Awards made was to pick Ang Lee as the Best Director for his film “Life of Pi” over Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” an anticipated front-runner.

Lee is one of the most diverse and thoughtful directors making films today. His genius may be rooted in his dual heritage – upbringing in Taiwan and education in film-making acquired in the US. These two streams of life and sensibilities converge in his cinema raising fundamental questions about faith, life, death and god.

In the Life of Pi, Lee offers a solution to the ‘pi of life.’ He places us at the mercy of the forces of nature – obliterating civilized thoughts, habits and behavior – forcing humans to do what they have done for millions of years of evolution – rely on our instinct to survive, adapt and make meaning in a hostile world.

Thus, what is revealed in the film is the ‘deep ecology of the human mind’ through the tempestuous and meditative rhythms of the sea, sky and the stars. Or, what theoretical biologists like Rupert Sheldrake call the ‘morphogenetic field’ or the ‘Gaia principle’. The earth is alive – a breathing and living organism – arousing a kind of nature mysticism in mortals filled with awe and magic. This is a clear vote for the climate debate, urging humans to not always try to manipulate the environment.

The Academy Award director of ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and ‘Brokeback Mountain’ believes cinema is about spirituality and self-discovery. It can open windows to deep mysteries of the universe. Thus, Lee offers an elegant meditation on the meaning of life. If that was the only goal of this film Lee has fully achieved his mission.

Yet, Lee simply transcends himself. He offers no less than the tao of cinema, spanning many continents, races, cultures and histories, relying on an international cast (Suraj Sharma, Irfaan Khan, Tabu, Rafe Spall, and Gerard Depardieu).

His cinematic vision literally sees through the eye of the tiger and into the universal soul – at times making us shudder and at other moments leaving us spellbound and completely at peace. Lee recasts our savagery and instincts through the rapaciousness of animals adrift at a ferocious sea. In the end, we are left staring at the inner firmaments of our own beings, enveloped by the darkness of the theater. The film travels through the 3-D spectacle into the world beyond. It captures the wild, throbbing, and chaotic dance of the universe, called maya or illusion, with frenzied animals and humans vying for survival.

We witness a hyena devour a zebra and an orangutan on the life boat. We hear a tiger roaring with pangs of hunger. We sleep under a translucent night-time sky adorned with sparkling stars while afloat in the Pacific. We are gripped by a sixteen year old boy Pi Patel’s adaption to the hostile sea and an even more hostile Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Played by Suraj Sharma in a debut role, Pi’s brilliant portrayal has garnered some awards by the jury of his peers. We feel for Pi – despair, fear, terror, loneliness, sadness, and finally tranquility – during a sea journey that lasts 227 days. Irfaan and Tabu deliver stellar performances as usual.

Ang Lee transcends himself, offering us the tao of cinema, spanning many continents, races, cultures and histories

The story, based on a best-selling novel by Yann Martel, is about a young boy, who loses his family in a ship-wreck and is the sole survivor in a life-boat with a tiger. The archetype of the story is as old as Noah’s Ark and Melville’s Moby Dick, yet futuristic as Cameron’s Avatar in its use of digital technology.

The core message of the film will have a wide appeal. Lee offers ‘a religion of no religions’ and embraces all faiths, with key distinctions of course, for a deeper understanding of human nature. “Truth is a pathless land,” said J. Krishnamurti, the modern Indian philosopher. Similarly, Lee seems to suggest that to fully apprehend ‘the truth’ any one faith may be simply limited.

Finally, the evolving relationship between Pi and the tiger is a memorable one, emblematic of our relationship with nature; they co-habitate the life-boat. The fear of the tiger keeps Pi alive, while his ability to tame him keeps the narrative moving forward. When the two part, however, the human and the animal must go their separate ways.

While Pi feels sad at “letting go” of the tiger without saying good bye, Richard Parker does not look back as he straddles into the wild. Through the eyes of the tiger, however, Pi has a better intimation of god and his own place in ‘the great circle of life.’

Dinesh Sharma
Dinesh Sharma is the author of 'Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President,' which was rated as a Top 10 Black history book for 2012 and 'Crossroads of Leadership: Globalization and American Exceptionalism in the Obama Presidency.'