My opinion on this movie should not surprise anyone. If you’ve ever read this blog, it should be somewhat, *ahem*, obvious. I am going to save savvy readers the paragraphs I could take to deconstruct all the problems I have with this film as politics, and as art.
I am also going to save readers that might look for some “balance” or “objectivity” in my opinion the trouble from seeking such things in a post where you just won’t find them. If you want me to give Zero Dark Thirty a “fair,” or perhaps “unbiased” review, I think you’ve missed one of the primary boats that the folks that made it are trying to sail. It is not – no matter who squawks to the contrary – meant to invoke the words “fair” or “unbiased” from anyone’s mouth – the filmmakers are banking on this movie’s controversy. Their seven, eight figure payoffs depend on the emotional discussions this film was literally made to generate.
Don’t go seek civility where none is meant, where none is offered by those that hold power. Don’t expect a neat tennis match of a debate that some in the mainstream world want all politics to be – a simple bouncing back and forth from one sanitary square box of an opinion to the other, on and on. Some of us just weren’t born to praise Caesar – especially when he attaches tacit government endorsement to the decade’s most inaccurate portrayal of issues surrounding the War on Terror. A spade is a spade, and propaganda that lies about history in order to cash out on people’s misguided ideas about what “patriotism” means is, guess what….
Yup. Propaganda. And from this woman’s perspective, utterly disgusting. On so many levels. From the just plain morally corrupt to politically dangerous. And I do not particularly feel the need to explain to you why I think so. I’m not going to break it down step by step, I’m not going to bus in pages of citations from legal professionals and reputable journalists and civil liberties experts. I will offer a few actual reviews of the film from experts and journalists that have followed issues surrounding the War on Terror far more than I – people that can hash out some of the major intellectual themes I could elaborate on: Glenn Greenwald and Jane Mayer and Peter Maass and Adam Serwer and Michael Tomasky – clicking on any of their names will lead you to these articles, if you’re interested.
And if you really want to have my deep disturbance at this movie backed up by some folks less blunt than I about politics, then please click here. Said link will lead you to a letter sent to the Sony Pictures Corporation from 3 US Senators – Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain. It is, to understate its tone quite severely, absolutely damning. I am in awe of the guts it took to put these words on paper, in public. “You [makers of Zero Dark Thirty] have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right.” Hell yes.
Finally, lest my brusque honesty has not yet shocked you – I have no plans to, nor will I ever see this film. This will probably be one of my only “Politics in Film” installments where I have not viewed the film I am writing about. Gotta problem with that? Shortly: There’s enough being said about it that I can read the whole plot and characterization and tone online without actually endorsing the thing with money.
More importantly, let’s put it this way: if I ever meet anyone involved with this film, I will have a problem looking them in the eye without crying. Honest, in-public, unashamed tears – that is how emotionally floored I am that this film is being praised as some great work of art or some politically relevant look at recent US history.
So it isn’t worth the emotional hardship of actually watching the thing. I am honestly not sure I could keep myself from losing my lunch during the torture scenes. (Even Senator John McCain has said it made him “sick” to watch it. I do not mean to reiterate his opinion, but his outspoken rejection of this film has really been so encouraging. My longtime respect for Senator McCain has been justified over and over.) I’ve spent a lot of my life wondering how so many people are capable of watching films that depict such a high level of violence without needing a barf bag next to their chair. At first I used to think it must have been my problem – now I am under no such unfortunate assumption.
So anyway, if you’ve bothered to read this far without clicking away from your intense disagreement with some aspect of what I just said, congrats! We’re free to get to the beefy part of this post: why society is rewarding this movie, how to deal with that fact, and how to repair some of the wounds being inflicted on America as a result of that fact.
I think the primarily problematic assumption here – the underlying theme lending Zero Dark Thirty its legitimacy – is the idea that its patriotic. Somehow, this particular portrayal of events – 9/11 being lined up next to torture next to Osama bin Laden next to more torture – allows Americans a window into the deeds our government (embodied here by solely the CIA, by the way – not any of the average infantry soldier that usually personifies duty-to-country patriotism) does to maintain our greatness as a nation.
It’s hard not to forget the random outburst of flag-waving in the street that happened when it was announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed. A lot of frat boys were excited that night; many a “Amurrica F*ck Yeah!” was shouted. But to mistake this enthusiasm for patriotism is, in my opinion, an insult to all the people who have blood, sweat and tears in the game of doing what really gives most people a sense of pride in our nation.
The people that died for our country as a result of the War on Terror did not do so out of some jingoistic, popcorn fueled, 2 hour long circle-jerk vision of what patriotism or duty-to-country means. Devotion to country isn’t something you do to feel good about yourself. You don’t get maimed or tortured or traumatized so that you can talk about it later, or so that some0ne can stick a flag on your experience and label it for the evening news. You only sacrifice what it takes to go to war if you believe you are going to protect your family, neighbors and friends. It’s sacrifice without a payoff, without a profit margin, and for most people, without a political message.
And so no fictional endeavor can ever truly capture the concept of patriotism, especially one that bludgeons its audience over the head with tropes and tired conventions. So when talking to people who praise Zero Dark Thirty for its “patriotism” – you can start by asking them: “Is that really what soldiers are dying for? Some ra-ra stadium sense of vengeance?”
The second problematic assumption that Zero Dark Thirty pushes is so inanely and ceaselessly repeated that I almost feel stupid highlighting it in this one instance over any other place I see it, but none the less:
The millions of foreigners that have died in the wars born from the War on Terror – the majority of them having died innocent of any crime whatsoever- did not perish because they were evil, one dimensional, cackling villains that just woke up one morning hating this country’s “freedoms.” The dead children whose last view on the world were their families’ blood all over the ground probably could not have pointed to America on a map, much less held an opinion that would have made them dangerous to you or me. All of the men detained at Guantanamo, all of the countless civilians blown up in Iraq by our side or others, the 1000s of drone victims in Pakistan and Yemen and elsewhere - Zero Dark Thirty is offering you one word to describe them: terrorist. If the film had to put that word into a sentence, the sentence would be “It’s unfortunately necessary to torture these terrorists.”
Is it this movie’s job to get beyond racist stereotypes? Should we expect it to invest in even the slightest iota of character development? Do the filmmakers have a duty to present their brown-skinned characters as multifaceted and complex? Well, it is “art,” after all. Rich white people are going to be bending over backwards to present Zero Dark Thirty with shiny awards. The filmmakers do not seem to take any of these questions seriously, and as a result one has to wonder just what the academy will be awarding.
And finally, our third assumption, and this one is the hardest to combat because despite my sole screechy voice to the contrary, it is a popular cultural myth: that the killing of bin Laden in specific – i.e. the act of assassination as a choice over all the myriad of options that could have been used to bring him to justice, was the morally (nevermind legally) correct thing to do. Zero Dark Thirty opens and closes with this idea – there is no evaluation, no thought given to the matter. It is the unequivocal gospel truth in this film. Again, this one is not so debated even in real society. It is a political “truth” that few people seem to question, even from the left – and for that precise reason I think it deserves some attention.
Osama bin Laden was not some Satanic bastion of inhuman evil who’s crimes put him above the consideration of the law, who’s crimes were so uniquely sinister that his death has to be raised to the level of pseudo-religious national holiday. He was a political terrorist – an extremist who did horrible, unacceptable things – that modern society has the appropriate legal structure to condemn and punish.
Putting all discussion of the film aside, there is absolutely no good reason why the event it is based off of should have happened in the first place. On the contrary, legally dealing with the perpetrators of crimes against humanity is one of the most mature and politically important functions any sort of government (national, or international) can take on. There is a reason that the allies decided to have Nuremburg Trials at the conclusion of WWII instead of taking all the Nazis out back and shooting them. There and then was a conflict, and there were crimes that – forgive me for offending anyone’s “patriotic” sensibilities – made 9/11 look random and politically isolated.
Imagine if, at the conclusion of WWII, some allied general had said, “Let’s just fly a late night helicopter run and blow the hell out of ‘em – I’m sure that will provide lots of closure for the fifty million+ victims’ families and friends. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of it! Justice done, folks!”
Doesn’t that just sound like it would provide boatloads of politically useful, peacetime promoting legal structure on which to rebuild society after a devastating war that robbed everyone of a moral compass? That solution would really provide a sense of order and true security that all the other violence that society has been overloaded with couldn’t, huh? ….No? Sarcasm alert not beeping yet??
…the Allies did not think so either. There was no time and no appetite for such trite, mindless ego massaging as seen in Zero Dark Thirty. War – true war – is not something that anyone has to turn on a TV or radio or consume media to experience. Our parents and grandparents remember a time when war was the thing that happened as you walked down the street every day, when you talked to your neighbors, when you went to the store to buy groceries, and when you got a draft notice in the mail.
One of the reasons why our government needs films like Zero Dark Thirty is because the average citizen’s only connection to this huge, impersonal behemoth of a “War on Terror” is monetary. We all pour huge amounts of taxpayer money into this, but beyond that, we do not participate. We do not feel its effects in our everyday lives. We barely interact with anyone that does.
Thus, we don’t tend to know much about it. There’s very little information offered by the media and especially our government as to why it’s important – mostly because we don’t ask very often. Questions like “what specific strategies are helping us to win this conflict?” or “what are the ethics of what we’re doing?” or “when do we intend to conclude it and be done already?” just do not occur to people.
So perhaps its really no wonder that society is raising up a travesty like Zero Dark Thirty - maybe that level of political discussion is exactly what we are used to, that we prefer even. Because if we can believe in the intense moral nihilism that Zero Dark Thirty offers, we don’t have to face or think about or deal with the true costs of war.
I promised above that there would be a “solutions” section to this post. I feel like most of what I think we should do is self-evident. Reject propaganda, promote the facts and actual history, and educate people about what our country does overseas in detail. Keep informed enough so that when something as manipulative as Zero Dark Thirty appears in popular society, you will have the ability to refute the problematic ideas with sophistication.
Also, there can never be enough promotion of the idea that our society needs to let go of violence as a solution for both local and international issues. 60s pop culture was right – it is just not the answer. The more people that are willing to assert this, and how often they do will equate directly to folks abandoning the need for ultra-violent films at movie theaters – and maybe even the need for ultra-violent wars in real life.
One can hope, at least.