Someone started a Facebook meme of the most politically misunderstood films of the past ten years. It’s a great question, and here are my three.
1. Juno, Jason Reitman. 2007. Supposedly anti-abortion. Even if you know nothing about scriptwriter Diablo Cody (a pro-choice feminist) and actress Ellen Page (also a pro-choice liberal who participates in films she believes in), it’s ridiculous beyond words to see this film as promoting an anti-abortion agenda. It establishes a girl’s choice to have her baby, without glorifying teen pregnancy, and that she would be supported by her friends and family regardless of her choice. It takes choice for granted. As such, it’s a film that could never have been made when I grew up in the ’80s, which is perhaps why some old-school feminists feel threatened by it — especially when anti-abortionists are on the cheer-leading deck. Juno is a product of third-wave feminism, assumes hard-won rights, and doesn’t need to preach. That’s what makes it a great film, on top of being one of the most endearing comedies ever made.
2. Zero Dark Thirty, Kathyrn Bigelow. 2012. Supposedly defends the use of rendition torture in combating terrorism. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Bigelow’s style (her award-winning Hurt Locker was neither pro- nor anti-military, respecting the army while portraying its personnel with the appropriate shades of gray), it’s a dimwitted belief that Zero Dark Thirty’s torture scenes serve an apologetic end. That torture produced positive results in hunting down Bin Laden doesn’t mean the ends justified the means, and Bigelow assumes viewers have the intelligence to reach this conclusion without having it spelled out. Depiction obviously isn’t endorsement — if it was, filmmakers and novelists would be barred from exploring necessary issues. Zero Dark Thirty is in fact Bigelow’s best film to date, finer and more disciplined than even The Hurt Locker.
3. The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson. 2004. Supposedly anti-Semitic, as well as torture porn. I can somewhat forgive the confusion over this one. Mel Gibson, after all, does have a torture fetish and plenty of anti-Semitic baggage. Ironically, neither of these intrude on the integrity of his film. Pornography encourages the viewer to want more, and the torture in Passion does anything but. An example of torture porn would be Eli Roth’s Hostel, which excites and fires your blood-lust even as it horrifies. Passion is more like Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs: you want the beatings and skin-flayings to stop at every moment. As for anti-Semitism, Passion is no more anti-Semitic than the gospels, and considerably less so than Matthew and John. As Mark Goodacre has noted, Gibson even dilutes the anti-Jewishness of his medieval source material by making Simon of Cyrene a Jew; he’s the hero who helps Jesus carry his cross, but Catherine Emmerich insisted he was pagan. If Passion is anti-Semitic, it’s only on the trivial level of the gospels themselves (and again, in some ways even less so), and naturally we don’t demand that Christians throw away their bibles. (This hilarious review gets the anti-Semitism issue right, but the porn issue wrong, though it’s being mostly tongue-in-cheek with the latter.) I have no respect for Gibson as a person, but he’s a talented enough film director, and Passion of the Christ is an important contribution that should be acknowledged by the secular and religious alike.
Why have Juno, Zero Dark Thirty, and Passion of the Christ been understood in ways that cut against their own grain? Simple. Anti-abortion, torture, and anti-Semitism are hot button issues, and if you don’t decry them, you’re seen as endorsing them. They all happen to be excellent films (even Gibson’s), and confirm the idea that the best films are often the most misunderstood ones.