'Lincoln' and 'Zero Dark Thirty' up for Oscars: Does Hollywood set US agenda?

Hollywood has long looked to political crises for dramatic inspiration. What is different, these Academy Award nominees show, is how much people in government are paying attention.

David James / DreamWorks & Twentieth Century Fox / AP / File
Sally Field and Daniel Day-Lewis appear in a scene from "Lincoln." Ms. Field, Mr. Day-Lewis, and director Stephen Spielberg were all nominated for Academy Awards today. The cast and crew of "Lincoln" received a total of 12 Oscar nominations.

With 12 Oscar nominations to its name, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has thrown sharp focus on the ways that the entertainment industry is fast becoming our unofficial fifth branch of government.

(Whether the news media, the Fourth Estate, is actually a fourth branch of government we can discuss another time!)

With President Obama ordering up a private screening of a new NBC sitcom, “1600 Penn,” about life in the White House, members of Congress calling for hearings on whether another Best Picture contender, “Zero Dark Thirty,” reveals classified data, and people hanging out at office water coolers chatting casually about the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation and whether or not Lincoln really needed to push for the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, Hollywood is helping set the political agenda for the nation in an ever bigger way, say media and political observers.

Of course Hollywood movies and TV shows have been looking to government crises and historical events for dramatic inspiration for years, from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) and “Advise and Consent” (1962) and up through "Primary Colors" (1998) and "The West Wing" (1999 to 2006).

What is different now is how much people in government are paying attention to these portrayals. As mass media and pop culture have become the go-to spots for a media-savvy generation, Washington is taking pop culture ever more seriously.

“To get hard things done, the president has to lead,” noted Sen. Roy Blunt (R) of Missouri, after a screening of "Lincoln" in the thick of fiscal cliff negotiations.

“Virtually every member of the Senate, I think, has seen this new movie on Lincoln, and the lesson of that movie is that to get hard things done the president has to decide he wants something done,” he adds.

America is a nation of over-sized narratives, says Oliver McGee, Howard University professor, former Clinton adviser and author of “Jumping The Aisle: How I Became a Black Republican in the Age of Obama.” Hollywood or the entertainment industry as a whole, he says, “is the force that is telling the American stories to the world.”

And now, more than ever, that industry is telling the American story to Americans themselves.

“How great is it that people are actually learning about the difference between an executive order and a law?” says Bill Rosenberg, political science professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, who teaches courses in politics, entertainment and political propaganda.

He notes that the story at the core of the Spielberg film is quite esoteric from the standpoint of a civics lesson. Yet it forms the heart of the drama for a film that has made some $144 million at the box office and is leading the Oscars race.

Audience members, by the way, may not immediately leave the theater understanding why Lincoln needed both to pass the 13th Amendment as well as sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Professor Rosenberg points out that the order would expire with the end of Lincoln’s term in office. Unless the subsequent president picked it up, he points out, “it would die.” Hence the need for an amendment.

That lesson has direct relevance to urgent issues in today’s political dramas. For instance, Rosenberg points out that Mr. Obama is considering issuing an executive order with respect to what needs to be done about gun violence in the wake of so many mass shootings nationwide.

“Now, that issue from Lincoln’s day becomes relevant all over again,” he says, “because in order for [Obama’s] work to have lasting impact, it will have to be followed up by legislation to make it last beyond his second term.”

This trend toward the merging of politics and pop culture, for both serious and comic entertainment, has been steadily growing, notes Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

He points out that pop culture has dabbled in political issues – think Lenny Bruce and the Smothers Brothers in the 60s and others such as “Tanner 88,” a seriocomic docu-tainment series in the 80s. But, the full-blown exploration of politics as mainstream entertainment has come of age in the past decade, he says.

He points to everything from political satire on Comedy Central – think Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart – to the raucous, often bitter political cable news shows – think Bill O’Reilly – as well as the flowering of history as its own source of just plain, great stories – think of the History Channel as well as such cable mini-series on presidents such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Certainly, the quick hit of pop culture cannot deliver the wisdom that a deeper understanding of history requires, points out Howard University’s Professor McGee. But, with the speed of a 24/7 news cycle and broadband access, “viewers can find out more for themselves, and hopefully they go from the movie and a few will actually ask what an executive order means.”

Professor Thompson agrees. “We have plenty of love and crime in our entertainment,” he says. “It’s about time that politics, which is at the heart of our national experience, soaks into our daily diversion in a meaningful and also entertaining way."

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