15 December 2013
In 1898, Briton J. Stewart Blackton produced a film entitled Tearing Down the Spanish Flag. The film lasted only a few seconds, and it portrayed a Spanish Flag being ripped from its mast to be replaced by the stars and stripes. Blackton was using American nationalism fueled by the Spanish-American war to capture his audience and he was successful. Today, in 2013, American cinema is dominated by nationalism, whether it is in films like The Hurt Locker and Black Hawk Down, or films outside the army genre like Man of Steel. American cinematography is most often made for the American audience, so it makes complete sense to see nationalism in Hollywood. Rarely do you see films that question American ideology. Two films, however, that give us vantages of American politics outside our usual perspectives are Chicago 10, directed by Brett Morgan, and Argo, directed by Ben Affleck. Chicago 10 is a documentary that uses both real footage and motion-capture animation to tell the story of eight protesters at the Democratic National Convention of 1968 and their trials after what started as rallies, turned into violence. Argo is Affleck’s telling of the 1979 mission, devised by the CIA, to rescue the 6 American embassy workers who went into hiding after Iranian revolutionaries captured the US embassy. While these films differ in genre and style, they both look at America’s role in global affairs and whether we belong in certain situations.
To fully understand Chicago 10’s dialogue on America and our foreign relations, it is essential to understand the context of the film. In 1968, America was at war in Vietnam. Over 15,000 US troops had been killed and LBJ approved the sending of more troops, peaking the US forces at 549,500 soldiers. Large populations of Americans were against US involvement in Vietnam, and it is that opposition that sets the stage for the film.
Brett Morgan began his work on Chicago 10 after the US became involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Morgan felt there was not enough opposition to aggressive US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and felt he needed to show today’s youth just how powerful their voices can be. Chicago 10 is primarily footage from the actual rallies in 1968. Morgan wanted to show the rallies and the trial exactly as they were without any distortion. No cameras were in the courtroom at the time of the trial, so Morgan improvised by using court documents and motion-capture animation. Using this animation, Morgan was able to design cinematic shots and angles that better dramatized the events that took place in the courtroom. Examples of this are his angles on the judge, Judge Hoffman. All the shots on Hoffman’s character are looking up at him, thereby demonstrating his superiority and authority in the courtroom and his being the physical embodiment of the law. Morgan also uses this animation to define characters like the police officers. He gives them dark lens masks with low brims to establish them as the dark, ominous enemy in the film. Morgan decided to use motion-capture animation because he believed it made the trial seem more experiential than just a historical reenactment.
Argo, like Chicago 10, can only be entirely understood through the history that surrounds it. In 1941, allied forces invaded Iran, which was a neutral country in World War II, to control its oil fields for Soviet use. During the invasion, the allied forces forced the abdication of Iran’s ruler, Reza Shah, as well as its elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. Reza Shah’s son, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, took his place, and he turned Iran into a dictatorial state. Over 30 years later, the Iranian people overthrew Pahlavi and in his place put Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who became the supreme leader of the Islamic state. Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi took asylum in the US because he feared for his life, and the Iranian people demanded his return so he could be tried on various charges. This history opens the film and allows the American audience to understand another country’s point of view, or at the very least, its perspective. Argo, while not 100 percent accurate, tells the story of a crippled America with very few options on a world stage. Affleck made a typical Hollywood movie while including Hollywood itself in the film. Further, he causes the viewer to question America’s involvement in the Middle East during the time in which the film is set, and aims to thereby cause the viewer to question America’s involvement in the Middle East today. When the film was released, two of the former Iranian hostages called for diplomacy with Iran versus military action. They discussed Carter’s military attempts to rescue them and how those attempts ended with bloodshed, while negotiations and diplomacy are what led to their coming home. They spoke directly to the Obama administration, saying the American people don’t know or understand their role in creating anti-Americanism in Iran and what we can do to restore our relations with Iran through peaceful measures.
Both Chicago 10 and Argo take events from America’s past and relate them to Americans today through a non-nationalistic lens. Chicago 10 looks at the war in Afghanistan and encourages today’s youth to take a stand against the US’s involvement there. Argo looks at problems with US relations in the Middle East today and communicates to the viewer that the root of these problems is America’s past decisions. Both films ask us to step outside our nationalistic paradigms and search for peace in confrontation. While they convey similar messages, they are very different movies. Argo is a thriller designed to engage the American audience. It uses hired actors, location filming, and a written script to tell a non-fictional account of what transpired. Chicago 10 is entirely historical and is more of a documentary than a thriller. It uses only footage taken at the time of the events or looks at the written account of the trial for dialogue. Chicago 10 is aimed at a younger audience and is far more of an auteur film with its use of motion-capture animation.
Both Chicago 10 and Argo are films that ask the audience to question American ideology and our way of life. In cinema, viewers are asked to “suspend disbelief” and step into the world provided by the director. The classic Hollywood style is to invite your audience into a world more stable than the reality in which we live. It takes a good director to effectively draw an audience into a world where its own country might be the problem or one that calls the audience to question its life style. Both of these films show how the decisions our country makes regarding our relations with countries across the globe can come back to eventually affect our own citizens and often result in violence. Nationalism may still reside in films today, and probably always will, but when films make us question who we are, they have the power to spread ideas, the power to change.
Clark, John. “Chicago 10 isn’t a conventional documentary” NY Daily News (2008) Accessed December 12, 2013, http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies
Rogin, Josh. “Former hostages seize Argo publicity, call for diplomacy with Iran” The Cable (2013) Accessed December 12, 2013, http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts
Scott, Ian October 20, 2013 “International Relations on Screen: Hollywood of American Foreign Policy” e-iIternational Relations http://www.e-ir.info/2013/10/20/international-relations-on-screen-hollywoods-history-of-american-foreign-policy/