'Argo,' 'Lincoln,' and 'Zero Dark Thirty': Why 2012 Became the Year Of Political Movies


Election years inevitably attract a spate of political movie releases, and 2012 proved no different. The recent wide releases of Argo, Lincoln, and Zero Dark Thirty have dominated the box office and award-season nominations, forming a politically charged triple feature.

Each film focuses on different aspects of the American body politic, both within the country and abroad. While Lincoln focuses on the historical complexities of leadership as well as the values that shaped postbellum America, Argo examines the fictions inherently involved in political plots. Finally, Zero Dark Thirty poses challenging questions regarding where the nation is now headed, and how history will recount the first decade of the new millennium.

Together, the three movies present American history through an unavoidably cinematic, yet nonetheless critical lens, questioning what defines the nature of U.S. politics, and answering with three very different, yet all essential aspects of the American system: the cult of personality, the creation of political fictions, and critical self-examination of government policies and actions.

Lincoln reaches back to the Civil War to focus on a time in American history when the country appeared to be irrevocably divided, and how Lincoln’s actions shaped the nature of the modern United States. Notably, director Steven Spielberg asked for the release date to be held until after the election, lest it might be seen as political propaganda for President Obama, whose tenure has often been compared to Lincoln’s.

Like Lincoln, Obama has faced wartime challenges, domestic difficulties, and a staunch divide between Republicans and Democrats in Washington. He has also had to account for the cult of personality surrounding his presidency: initially depicted as a liberal savior, he has at times struggled to live up to these lofty expectations. How Obama continues to establish his personal legacy during his second term remains to be seen, and any contemporary comparisons between Obama and Lincoln will have to wait a few more decades before they become cemented in history.

Fast forward just over a century to 1979. In its historical account of the “Canadian Caper” aspect of the Iranian hostage crisis, Argo plays with the concepts of fact and fiction to highlight the absurdity of extremist politics. Though some critics argue that Ben Affleck’s film is far too pro-American (at the expense of any alternative narratives), this view is somewhat reductionist.

Just as the C.I.A. invents a Hollywood cover story for their operation, the Iranian revolutionaries are creating their own blockbuster narrative that plays out on the evening news for a 444 day run. The theater of the absurd is not something one culture participates in at the expense of the other in this film – everyone is absurd, and fact and fiction are often two sides of the same coin in the political arena.

Finally, Zero Dark Thirty returns to the recent past. Originally scheduled for a release date before the election, it was pushed back to December/January to avoid any accusations of a political agenda (and also conveniently position itself closer to the awards season). However, rather than serving as a pro-Obama narrative (as some expected it to be), since its release, most of the political debate over Zero Dark Thirty has centered on its depiction of torture, and how it was either a useful or futile tool in the War on Terror (as well as how much information the C.I.A. should reveal about government operations).

After bin Laden’s death (no spoilers there, but a few details will follow here), the movie ends with a stunning 30-second close-up reaction shot of Maya (Jessica Chastain) after a pilot asks her, as the sole passenger on the military transport aircraft, where she’d like to go. Her quiet, poignant reaction sums up the moral ambiguity of the movie, as well as of the actions taken by the United States government throughout the War on Terror. Did information from tortured detainees contribute to the killing of Osama Bin Laden? Was his death worth all the money, effort, and lives lost in the pursuit? When the task at hand has been completed, and the answers are still unclear, where do you go from there?

It will be interesting to see how the political issues raised in these films will resolve themselves in 2013 and onwards. Following President Obama’s inauguration this weekend, what sort of leadership will he represent in his second term? What types of segregation and discrimination still exist in America, and how should we address them as a nation? Which political fictions will be upheld, and which will be challenged? How will the U.S. approach complex relationships abroad – not only in Iran, but throughout the Middle East, and across the globe? Now that some of the dust of the last decade has settled, where do we want to go, as a country? Luckily, Obama’s re-election campaign provided us with a good idea of his answer: forward.