The thriller Zero Dark Thirty has exposed a wide gap between film critics and their counterparts in politics. Nearly every American film critic has lauded and rewarded it, including the New York Film Critics Circle, which tapped it as the best film of the year, making it a front-runner for Oscar nods. In sharp contrast, a number of major political writers have reviled the film, including New Yorker writer Jane Mayer and Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, while Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain and Carl Levin wrote a letter of complaint to the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures, calling the movie “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information” that led to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The division between political writers, politicians and critics only got more pronounced as the CIA’s acting director, Michael Morell, published an unusual disavowal of the film. When it comes to torture, Morell wrote, “the film takes significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate.”
All these skirmishes make me wish we could weave these two forms of commentary — film criticism and political thought — together again more strongly. In the postwar decades, the best reviewers of the day saw addressing the politics within the cultural works they reviewed as part of their jobs. Such writers included Dwight McDonaldMacdonald, Mary McCarthy, James Agee, Parker Tyler, Robin Wood and even Pauline Kael, whose critique of films on the right (the classic The Deer Hunter, of which she said, “It has no more moral intelligence than the Clint Eastwood action pictures, yet it’s an extraordinary piece of work …”) and on the left (Missing) didn’t cleanse them of their political agendas.
Writers like McCarthy, who was both a theater critic and a political writer, were more attuned to the ideological sources behind play and film, as they came up in the Depression and the war years, according to Hunter College Professor Richard Kaye, who is working on a project about McCarthy. After all, art was explicitly tied to politics within fascism as well as within communist states. Watching the power of ideology at work within fascism made writers more likely to combine politics with aesthetics. They understood the propagandistic potential of overwhelmingly dramatic popular entertainment.
Today, in part because because popular art has largely been decoupled from politics, film critics tend to be narrower in their expertise. They are also operating in an America where “partisan” and “political” have been made to equal each other in a toxic way. Thus, critics and many political thinkers can’t necessarily agree on a critical focus. Zero Dark Thirty’s portraits of CIA officers torturing detainees in the film — ultimately (if in a roundabout fashion) leading to the officers finding and killing bin Laden — enraged pundits like the Guardian’s Greenwald. He slammed film critics for praising the film while ignoring what he believed to be its troubling political message. Why were critics celebrating pacing, mise en scene and script but not addressing the political fundamentals of a film that appeared to endorse torture as a productive tool? In return, Time’s lively popular culture critic James Poniewozik hit back, writing that Greenwald’s perspective was “a simplistic way of looking at art, but it’s not surprising, because Greenwald is a political writer (or at least an ideological public-affairs writer), and this is the political way of looking at art.” He continued: “Film history is full of movies that are false, amoral, brutal, sadistic, yet are triumphs of vision and storytelling.”
Poniewozik is not wrong, of course. There have been films, from Birth of a Nation to Triumph of the Will, that are aesthetically compelling but politically and ethically odious; some would add the recent films of Quentin Tarantino to this list. And political writers rarely believe art takes precedence over current events or history.