What’s the difference between an American movie producer and an American secretary of state? The one dreams of winning an Oscar, the other makes sure the awards go to the right global players.
American foreign policy has long been committed to flooding the world with Hollywood films. Inseparable from this open market ideology is the recognition of the moving image’s literal projection of American power and the universal rightness of the American Way.
Winston Churchill paid homage to these forces when he described Mrs. Miniver, that silly Little Olde England wartime MGM melodrama of 1942, as “propaganda worth a hundred battleships.” Falling in line with war effort, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences obediently named it Best Picture in 1943. Mrs. Miniver beat out The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles’s critique of the devastating social consequences of the automobile and therefore an attack on the just-mentioned American Way.
A year later in 1943 Roosevelt’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull dispatched former Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies to the Kremlin with a print of Warner Brothers’ just-released movie adaptation of Davies’s own memoir, Mission to Moscow. Directed by Michael Curtiz, who’d done Casablanca the year before, the movie began with an appearance by the ambassador himself (after that scene, Walter Huston plays him) assuring viewers that, “No leaders of a nation have been so misrepresented and misunderstood as those in the Soviet Government.” What follows is a fawning view of U.S-Soviet friendship, the over-heated sentiment warmed still further by Hollywood’s most prolific and proficient composer, the Viennese émigré Max Steiner, who channeled the heroic sweep of Tchaikovsky to seal the short-lived alliance. Davies’ memorandum to Hull reported that, Stalin watched the film with “glum curiosity.” Uncle Joe far preferred American Westerns.
The current leading man at the State Department fits snugly into these traditions of cinematic statecraft. Aside from being a pitch man for Israel and the Saudis, arms manufacturers and Silicon Valley, Antony Blinken’s main qualification for his current job is that he was an associate produce of The Addiction, an arty 1994 vampire flick set at N. Y. U. in which the blood-sucking nocturnal depredations are interleaved with archival footage of the Holocaust. Blinken would soon be addicted to power.
Not coincidentally, 1994 was also the year Blinken took up his first governmental post in Clinton’s National Security Council, where he became Senior Director for Speechwriting—what in Hollywood would be called screenplay development. Mastery of the cinematic and political arts and sciences requires the mixing of selective truths with large quantities of vote-winning/ticketing-selling fiction.
A decade on from his arrival in East Coast Babylon, Blinken was beating the drum for the invasion of Iraq, knocking out speeches and strategy papers for Biden when the future president was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden was still in bad need of a script doctor more than a dozen years after been chased from the 1988 presidential campaign for stealing the family stories of British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock and passing these stirring orations off as his own. Biden was a mediocre, if reliable character actor doing the Working Class Joe bit in whatever political theater would have him. The problem was that Biden’s people hadn’t first secured the film rights to Kinnock’s screenplay. Like this year’s best Supporting Actor winner, Key Huy Quan, Biden would have to spend a couple of decades doing bit parts and his own stunts before landing, improbably, the role of a lifetime as American Commander-in-Chief. “Props, get me another pair of Top Gun Aviators®!”
Having hitched his cart to the right horse, the resourceful Blinken rose up through the Democratic studio system, specializing in disaster features like the Islamic State and intervention tragi-comedies like Destroying Libya, which bombed in the Middle East but were hits on American home screens in 2011. It was a huge year for the studio, one that also saw the release of the critically acclaimed documentary Operation Neptune Spear: The Killing of Osama bin Laden Blinken watched the premiere in the White House Situation—i.e., Screening—Room.
Blinken also recognized that the studio bosses and their backers loved drones. He has never stopped loving them. The 10,000 Islamic Fighters he claimed were killed with the airborne death merchant equipped with highlight-reel cameras were merely extras in the ongoing American widescreen epic. By the end of the Obama years Blinken had risen to become Deputy Secretary of State.
With Trump’s screwball antics hogging the frame, Blinken took a role as creative “consultant” (i.e., lobbyist) at his firm, WestExec, brokering deals and wielding influence with a self-assured sleaziness equal to that of the most adept and ruthless Hollywood player.
Watching from the wings (almost literally since WestExec offices are just a couple of blocks from the White House), Blinken kept the faith that his interventionist brand of American exceptionalism would find favor again. From his off-screen vantagepoint he surely welcomed the apotheosis of Parasite at the Oscars in the election year of 2020. That “foreign” victory was repudiated by the nativist Trump, liberal Hollywood thumbing its nose at him and turning butt to Make-America-Great-Again motion pictures.
Cannier observers like Blinken would have welcomed, perhaps even facilitated, the recognition given the South Korean movie, one that lavishly ogled the wealth driving its rags-infiltrate-riches story. The Oscars were a signal to the pariahs of communist North Korea that they would never reap the financial rewards or aesthetic prestige of their freedom-loving neighbors to the south. The Best Picture for Parasite was a preview of The Return to the Asia Pivot to be produced by Blinken once he was back at State.
More than two years into his contract as Big Bog of Diplomacy, Blinken must have smiled all through last Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony as foreign policy movie objective after the next was met.
Everything Everywhere All at Once hauled in seven statuettes, including that for Best Picture. The movie tells of a valiant, yet heart-warming battle against the nefarious forces of surveillance, control, incarceration, and death. Good, law-abiding, small-business-owning immigrants, having fled the Communist oppression, are continually portaled into the multi-metaverse, pursued there by a bad gal and her bad guys. Only the Democratic values of inclusion and love, abetted by martial arts, can repel the totalitarian threat. It’s Facebook versus TikTok, and no coincidence that, with the Academy Awards now done and delivered, the U.S. can move against the dangerous social media menace from the PRC.
That Stephanie Hsu (also nominated for Supporting Actress along with her castmate, Jamie Lee Curtis, who won the Oscar) plays both the American-born lesbian daughter of the immigrant family and the arch-villain makes for an obvious and admonitory allegory of the Two Chinas. (spoiler alert: guess which one wins?) In her Best Actress speech, Michelle Yeoh summoned Asian children around the world to follow her example and pursue dreams only possible in real democracies. Best Supporting Actor Quan and his family escaped Vietnam in 1971. Co-Writer-Director Daniel Kwan’s parents came to the U.S. from Hong Kong, now suffering under the communist boot. Everything was a clarion call of freedom.
Any covert operation must adhere to the doctrine of plausible deniability, and Everything could not be allowed to win in every category. David Byrne’s duet with Mitski of their quirky, contrapuntal, cosmic Best Original Song candidate, “This is a Life,” was a perfectly executed act of covert sabotage conducted in plain sight and sound. Normally unflappable, even when flapping away as a dancer, Byrne detuned and detonated his own number. Yet his Every-Key- Everywhere-All-at-Once approach could be heard, if painfully, to accord with aesthetic precepts of the picture it accompanied. Byrne fell on his sonic sword with the theatrical conviction of a true patriot.
Byrne’s sacrifice served Blinken’s other objectives too. India had to be thrown at least one concession as part of a larger strategy to pry the subcontinent loose from the increasingly cozy Chinese embrace. That concession came in the form a cheap gold statuette for the madcap, viral song-and-dance of “Naatu, Naatu.”
Even while American attentions and resources turn towards Asia, the venerable NATO alliances must be safeguarded. Germany’s All Quiet on the Western Front won four Oscars, including one for Volker Bertelmann’s score, its bombed-out orchestral grandeur gnawed at by the electronic ghost of his grandmother’s harmonium. Nominally an anti-war movie, this All Quiet rewrites Remarque’s novel so that (alert: spoiler number two coming!) the protagonist Paul is bayonetted from behind by a French soldier in a literal enactment of the pernicious Stab-in-the-Back myth that helped Hitler march Germany into World War Two. Many Germans were incensed at this disfiguration of the book’s message, but the message from Hollywood and Foggy Bottom was clear: Deutschland, hold the line in the Ukraine! Obviously, then, the documentary Navalny had to win in that category.
These Dolby diplomatic successes duly recorded, Israel will have to be shored up and the nascent, big-bucks Saudi film industry boosted next year come Oscar time. Closer to the Hollywood homeland, awards for the right kind of Mexican border movie might have to be arranged.
As the chimes at midnight tolled in Washington between Sunday and Monday, Blinken was ready to turn in a happy honcho.
But even a canny movie man like the Secretary State has his blind spots. The thing about the Big Dark and the celebration of its allure in the bright lights of Awards Night in the Dolby Theatre, is that the movies are lethally efficient at allowing, indeed encouraging, escape from reality. Even as Blinken and his cinematic operatives dole out the goodies in his Movie Marshall Plan, they don’t seem to know that the closing credits of the American Empire’s blockbuster are already rolling.
For now, there are laurels to be rested on. Before drifting off into his own American superpowered dreams, Blinken might have thought back to his own movie past. He is not known to have helped with the script for The Addiction but I’m betting he penciled in one uttered by the main character, Kathleen (Lili Taylor), who’s trying to finish her Ph.D. student in philosophy, and who, at the film’s climax (Spoiler Alert 3), bites her way through the faculty: “It makes no difference what I do. Whether I draw blood or not. It’s the violence of my will against theirs.”