Washington is getting a nice run at the Oscars with Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo getting Best Picture nods. None of them will rank with the likes of Advise and Consent or All the President’s Men for modern capital thrillers. But each offers a good lesson about modern Washington nonetheless.
Zero Dark Thirty: Crazy People Count. Forget the endless back and forth about torture. Both sides get that wrong. I wrote that Maya, Jessica Chastain’s CIA analyst in Zero Dark Thirty, is emblematic of the determined, crazy-making Washingtonians who drive an organization whether it’s Dick Cheney making war in Iraq or Dick Holbrooke bringing peace to the Balkans. Determined, persistent people matter. It’s the great-man theory of history but with a homeland-style twist. Possess the right combination of determination, gall, and smarts, and you will get your way. Ask LBJ. Ask Rahm.
Lincoln: You Have To Do Bad Things for Good Ends. The Spielbergian classic-to-be is filled with hokey touches including an unintentionally funny scene where a remembered Lincoln speaks from inside a candle flame. And at times it’s like community theater with stars. ("Look, it’s Leah Dunham’s boyfriend as Union Soldier No. 5!") But the basic gist of the film is that you have to engage in all kinds of lies, moral compromises, etc. for a greater end--in this case the passage of the 13th Amendment. Leaving aside any historical inaccuracies in the film, we know its basic truth: There’s lots of arm-twisting to get any significant piece of legislation through Congress. Lincoln’s men use vanity, bribes, prevarication, and a clever delay of a Confederate peace delegation to help push through the amendment. This doesn’t seem like an especially novel insight to anyone who lives in the Beltway. But for those who believed Lincoln a saint and not a man, it’s probably news.
Argo. Subcontractors Are Heroes! Argo is in some ways a comic analog to Zero Dark Thirty. Looking at our mess in the Mideast 30 years ago, it charts the tense, goofy, and true plot to evacuate some of the Americans in Iran in 1980. The final scenes where the hostages are being ferried out of the country are arguably tenser than the ones in Zero Dark Thirty, even if there weren’t filmed through night-vision goggles. But the point’s the same. One CIA analyst’s agitation for a plan made all the difference, but not all. Without the help of a Hollywood effects artist the plot wouldn’t have worked. In other words, it took a subcontractor to make the difference. 1980 was a world away in terms of subcontracting in Washington. The Bush-Blackwater-Homeland-Security era accelerated the use of subcontractors.