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The Political Uses of Archival Material in “Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and Chile’s “No”

The Political Uses of Archival Material in "Argo," "Zero Dark Thirty" and Chile's "No"

I’m not sure if anyone has called it out specifically, but archival news material made a comeback in the Hollywood feature film recently, with the most high-profile examples coming in this year’s Oscar nominees “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” (You can bet that if broadcast news journalists coverered the American Civil War, Steven Spielberg would have included a few excerpts during the end credits of “Lincoln,” too.) For my most recent Docutopia column, I wrote about the various uses of news and documentary clips in those two bigger movies, compared with those in “No,” Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s more self-aware look at a tumultous moment in his own country’s history.

Here are some excerpts:

“From Oliver Stone’s JFK to this year’s big history-based dramas Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, many Hollywoodized versions of true stories begin with archival material to add import and veracity to their proceedings. Just as JFK‘s initial credit sequence begins with excerpts of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous speech, warning against the dangers of the “military-industrial-complex,” followed by news footage of President Kennedy’s rise to power, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty employ real material—a mini-documentary on Iran’s pre-Islamic political history; panicked phone calls and billowing smoke from the World Trade Center on 9/11—to kick-start their narratives….”

“By contrast, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain’s smarter and more enjoyable No, opening in theaters next week … uses archival footage ripped from the period, but also simultaneously mounts a vigorous deconstruction of those same media images. The film takes as its subject the process of how these images are created, whether in the propagandistic portrayals of Pinochet as a protective fatherly leader or in the representation of a democratic alternative as a populist “We Are the World”-type music video.”

“Larrain includes the opposition’s actual “Happiness is Coming” campaign commercials from the time—with their array of unrelated images of mimes, a man dancing on a bridge, smiling faces, picnics, horse-riding, etc, they’re almost too silly to be believed—then restages scenes of their constructions, further showing the absurdity of what’s on display. For example, Larrain fictionalizes a debate about the use of an out-of-place French baguette in the picnic shot. But it looks good, argues the film’s protagonist, Gael Garcia Bernal’s charismatic marketing guru. Images trump issues.”

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