Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Hollywood movies can (mis)educate us

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
December 26, 2012 -- Updated 1540 GMT (2340 HKT)
Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" has impressed both critics and audiences with its take on the 16th president. Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" has impressed both critics and audiences with its take on the 16th president.
HIDE CAPTION
Movies for adults
Movies for adults
Movies for adults
Movies for adults
Movies for adults
Movies for adults
Movies for adults
Movies for adults
Movies for adults
Movies for adults
Movies for adults
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dean Obeidallah: A movie or TV show can educate or (mis)educate you
  • Obeidallah: Two new films about hot issues are firing up both the left and right
  • Senators slammed "Zero Dark Thirty," and energy industry attacked "Promised Land"
  • Obeidallah: What does Hollywood want? To make money, of course

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog "The Dean's Report" and co-director of the upcoming documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter: @deanofcomedy

(CNN) -- Can a movie actually convince you to support torture? Can a movie really persuade you that "fracking" -- a process used to drill for natural gas -- is a danger to the environment? Can a movie truly cause you to view certain minority groups in a negative light?

Some scoff at the notion that movies do anything more than entertain. They are wrong. Sure, it's unlikely that one movie alone will change your views on issues of magnitude. But a movie (or TV show) can begin your "education" or "miseducation" on a topic. And for those already agreeing with the film's thesis, it can further entrench your views.

Anyone who doubts the potential influence that movies can have on public opinion need to look no further than two films that are causing an uproar even before they have opened nationwide. They present hot button issues that manage to fire up people from the left and right.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

The first, "Zero Dark Thirty," is about the pursuit and killing of Osama bin Laden, which features scenes of torture. The second, "Promised Land," stars Matt Damon and explores how the use of fracking to drill for natural gas can pose health and environmental dangers.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



Critics of "Zero Dark Thirty" fear that audiences will accept as true the film's story line that torture was effective in eliciting information to locate bin Laden. They are rightfully concerned that the film will sway some to become more receptive or even supportive of the idea of torturing prisoners.

Peter Bergen: Did torture really net bin Laden?

'Zero' film: Fact or fiction?
McCain slams 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Opposition to the film escalated last week as three senior U.S. senators -- John McCain, Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein -- sent a letter to the film's distributor, Sony Pictures, characterizing the film's use of torture as "grossly inaccurate and misleading." The senators bluntly informed Sony Pictures that it has "an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film's fictional narrative."

CNN Explains: Fracking
To frack or not to frack

The hostility toward "Promised Land" shows us that it's not just politicians who complain about movie messages. Big business -- namely, the gas industry -- is aggressively objecting to the allegation in "Promised Land" that fracking poses environmental and health risks.

How concerned is the gas industry?

It has set up a rapid response team to counter publicity for the film by using two Washington-based groups that lobby for gas and oil companies: the Independent Petroleum Association of America and Energy in Depth. These groups have scrutinized appearances by the films stars on talk shows, questioned who the financiers of the film are, published parts of the script and mocked the film on social media.

Energy in Depth went as far as to "fact check" a recent appearance by the film's co-star and co-writer, John Krasinski, on "Late Night With David Letterman." Within hours of Krasinski's appearance, Energy in Depth posted a blog on its website pointing out what it perceived as factual errors made by Krasinski about fracking.

Regardless of whether "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Promised Land" intended to promote any message, people who watch them will be "educated" in some way on torture and fracking -- even if very subtly.

This is the same reason that minority groups continue to object to being represented in a negative light in movies and TV. They understand that accurate representations matter because studies have shown that biases can form based on stereotypes or inaccurate representations. (Being of Italian and Arab descent, I'm acutely aware of this issue as my respective heritages have been represented by a parade of mobsters and terrorists.)

What's Hollywood's role in all of this? The same as it has always been -- to make money.

In fact, there's no doubt that the studios behind these movies are overjoyed at the controversy that has erupted and the resulting free press. Indeed, the response of Sony Pictures to the uproar over "Zero Dark Thirty" tells you about what they really hope we will all do: "We encourage people to see the film before characterizing it."

So go ahead, enjoy these films and ones like them that are based on actual events or current hot issues. But while you are watching them, be aware you might be getting more than the price of ticket. You might also be getting a (mis)education.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT)
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0134 GMT (0934 HKT)
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT