Motion pictures have captured the imaginations of millions, providing an enticing alternative to the drudgery of modern life. Contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, critically-acclaimed indies, and the inundation of hackneyed sequels based on a single premise (read: money-making) bring in revenue, provide entertainment, but more significantly, perpetuate the pervasive power of the film industry. Though theoretical approaches and opinions on film are as different as they are numerous, one idea is constant–art of any kind must have the power to move a person in a profound way. If art must bear this weighty responsibility, must Hollywood, with its powerful mix of creativity and business savvy, represent political events factually?
This broad question is particularly current. Impressive though Hollywood’s economic gains are, political controversy is currently consuming media exposure of the industry. Between December 2014 and January 2015, two Hollywood movies have pinched the nerves of citizens and governments alike: The Interview and American Sniper. These movies, though different in execution and intent, strongly bring into focus the issues of censorship, authenticity, and political agenda. I have not seen either of these movies, maybe because of their subject matters, or maybe because of their critical reviews. Without actually watching these films, it is impossible to accurately comment or critique either depiction, but both public responses raise significant questions on the responsibilities of media, and specifically, film, in contemporary society.
If Seth Rogen and James Franco, and Clint Eastwood were looking to stoke the fires of public discontent, both domestically and abroad, they could not have succeeded more than with The Interview and American Sniper, respectively. The Interview’s farcical take on a fictional assassination of North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong-Un, has, unsurprisingly, provoked ire from North Korean officials, and, possible cyber-hacking of U.S. companies. Not to be outdone, American Sniper has raised competing calls of praise and derision for its serious depiction of Chris Kyle, a US Navy SEAL tasked as a sniper in Afghanistan, based on Kyle’s best-selling autobiography. Though different in subject matter, tone, and critical reviews, both films have been criticized for their liberal adjustment of recent history.
In particular, American Sniper has seen the publication of numerous op-eds, from Rolling Stone to The Washington Post, decrying the limited perspective of the film, reducing civilian casualties to faceless enemies and, to some, glorifying a military conflict based on severely flawed intelligence. This depiction, some suggest, of an American hero in a mysterious and dangerous Middle East reduces what could have been a thoughtful character study into a caricature of West versus East, and Good versus Evil, in the guise of an action-adventure film.
How do these political perspectives affect entertainment? Conventional wisdom dictates that going to the movies is purely a social occasion, part of the cultural fabric of the United States, and a way to relax or enjoy free time. Certainly, the technological advances in computer graphics, sound, and cinematography have propelled many big-budget films to dazzling heights, to become spectacles which amaze and offer fantastic visions of other worlds. The perspective a film takes can visually persuade the viewer to reconsider their own experiences, which is a function of successfully “moving” people. However, what if such a film also condoned or glamorized racist attitudes, and presented a system of racial or gender hierarchy? Most people are likely to oppose this content in abstraction. Yet, both examples clearly demonstrate that topical issues and historical events are popular enough to merit major studio productions, which connects entertainment with real discourse, and a power unmatched by politics, literature, or other commentaries. Whether each studio realizes, making The Interview and American Sniper puts consumers in a political situation:
- Should one support a studio which fictionalizes the realities of war, or one which depicts the assassination of a dictator?
- Should the economy depend on products which alienate certain segments of the increasingly globalized population?
Contrastingly, censorship, or deliberately regulating content not deemed obscene disregards the unique perspective a film can afford. Which is not to say that film is free from scrutiny and moral judgment. Instead, both the creators of film and the viewing public must acknowledge the extraordinary power that film, television, and other media play in representation of contemporary political and moral issues. Film, like other public mediums, implicitly carry responsibility. Too easily is one lulled into a sense that powerful fiction is a substitute for factual account of political events, or that truth is one representation. Instead, films containing potentially sensitive political elements must be enjoyed and challenged for their depiction, as a fiction that can potentially have real influence on public perception. Fiction may be fun, but it also may be potent. It is up to an educated population, and thoughtful media, to understand the blurred line between art and reality.