Elias Isquith in The Atlantic no doubt raised a few eyebrows with his recent article with the counterintuitive title, “Hollywood's Real Bias Is Conservative (but Not in the Way Liberals Often Say).” He looked at the impressive slate of political (and in some cases, highly politicized) films from 2012 including The Dark Knight Rises, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Django Unchained, and Argo, and uncovered an often overlooked conservatism there – but an economic one, not an ideological one.
Isquith argues that Hollywood’s business model, rather than its politics, determines what risks it is willing to take and what cultural assumptions it is willing to question. For example, he points to the hunt-for-bin-Laden movie Zero Dark Thirty as an example of how, contrary to its left-leaning reputation, “Hollywood falls in line when the nation is awash in patriotic fervor and the fear of an existential threat.”
Not always. Sure, World War II-era films tended to be unabashedly patriotic, but as far back as the Cold War era Hollywood often took a subversive tack, as with the political satire Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In our contemporary conflict with Islamic fundamentalists, Hollywood presents a morally relativistic stance. The filmmakers of 2oo2’s The Sum of All Fears, for example, famously swapped out the novel’s original Muslim terrorists for the politically safer, Hollywood go-to bad guys, neo-Nazis – and that was in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when patriotic fervor was at its highest. Even today, ten years later, the filmmakers and stars of award-winning Showtime terrorism drama Homeland are proud of its moral equivalence.
In Zero Dark Thirty, an isolated, single-minded CIA agent—a loner that no one believes in—is the chief reason the butcher of 9/11 is lost to time at the bottom of the sea. In Lincoln, it's only through the singular grace, wisdom, and humanity of the 16th president that the greatest evil in American history, an evil few but he sees with true clarity, is finally put to rest. And in The Dark Knight Rises, Gotham is saved by the orphan Bruce Wayne as the pariah Batman. These people do great things. And they do them alone.
His point is overstated, but Isquith is correct that each of those films focuses on a single hero or heroine. In his final paragraph he notes, though, that this choice is “less ideology than business imperative.” That’s because, not only in Hollywood but in storytelling generally, the narrative journey of a single protagonist quite simply is the most compelling and satisfying. Even a well-done heroic epic with an ensemble cast like The Avengers doesn’t resonate emotionally with the audience like a Braveheart or a Gladiator, to name two personal favorites. It is a storytelling imperative that stretches all the way from Aristotle’s Poetics to Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and Hollywood screenwriters are well-versed in that formula.
So does progressive ideology take a backseat to conservative business sense in Hollywood, as Isquith says? It’s a common assumption that Hollywood is all about money, and certainly success is the bottom line. But Hollywood has also shown a headstrong determination to take a bath on occasion to prove its activist bona fides with political “message” projects such as anti-war flops Rendition, Redacted, Body of Lies, Matt Damon’s Green Zone, and Sean Penn’s Fair Game. It’s still a political town, but audiences prefer to be moved and inspired rather than lectured. That’s a message filmmakers should take to heart if they want their bottom line to increase.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 1/22/13)