Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: A Nihilist View of the War on Terror

It is almost superfluous to add yet one more voice to the cacophony that is the response to the Kathryn Bigelow movie, Zero Dark Thirty... yet here I go.

I held off writing anything until I had watched the movie, as commenting on something I had not seen would certainly have been unfair, and I must still admit that my take is subjective, rooted in a particular time and historical period, not to mention a set of personal experiences that have sensitized me to the subject of torture.

While the movie has already been honored by many in the film world, with awards and nominations, including a nomination for best picture of the year by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences (the Oscar), it has also been heavily criticized by U.S. senators, by liberal or leftist columnists and various human rights groups.

Having seen the criticisms, the negative responses are certainly justified. Screenwriter Mark Boal reportedly worked with CIA contacts and others in the administration to craft the story, as at the very beginning of the movie a screen title informs us the picture is based on "first-hand accounts."

Indeed, the story is told from the viewpoint of CIA officers, particularly one young female agent: "Maya" was recruited out of high school to the CIA, for reasons that are pointedly kept obscure. Her entire life revolves around the CIA and the hunt for terrorists, centering on Osama bin Laden.

At first, she is pictured as someone who is squeamish around torture. As the film proceeds, she becomes harder, until she is becomes an unflinching interrogator, directing beefy strongmen to slap and punch bound "terrorist" suspects. This is portrayed as something heroic, something in her character's development that is laudatory, and leading ultimately to her key role in finding Bin Laden.

As the movie progresses, casual comments are pointedly thrown out to let us know that the CIA is having its hands tied by liberals, who criticize torture, and want to let terrorist suspects have attorneys, who then can go to Al Qaeda and inform them what is revealed to their clients at Guantanamo. This is not a movie that merely wants to "objectively" portray the war on terror: it has a point of view, and even a mission. And that point of view is decidedly similar to that of former Vice President Dick "Dark Side" Cheney.

The movie is also racist in outlook, portraying Muslims, and in particular dark-skinned Afghans and Pakistanis as inscrutable, if exotic, orientals. The CIA heroes move among this mysterious and treacherous environment trying to save lives, only to be inexplicably attacked with bombs and suicide-vest wearing terrorists.

The movie portrays attacks made on the Marriott hotel in Pakistan and the suicide bombing by a Jordanian doctor that killed a number of CIA agents in Khost, Afghanistan. There is no reason given for these attacks. They occur, it would seem, as a manifestation of pure evil, or of inexplicable chaos, almost as if the terrorist attacks were as random and insistent as those the rich bourgeois suffered in Luis Brunuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Not for even a minute is there any consideration as to why people may be attacking U.S. targets. While there are a few mentions of Iraq, there is no reference to the costs of war in either Iraq or Afghanistan... almost as if they never existed!

There is also a reference to a supposed greater than 50% likelihood that Iraq was harboring WMD and the CIA was merely mistaken in believing Hussein was harboring a WMD program. It's never even imagined in Bigelow-Boal's jingoistic telling that the CIA in fact was helping the US government manufacture a casus belli for invasion, something high officials in the United Kingdom certainly noticed, and cabled as much to their government.

The movie's only moment of ironic detachment comes at the very end. When a soldier asks Maya where she would like to go now that Bin Laden is dead (and by the way, it's never shown what the US does with Bin Laden's body after it's taken from Abbottabad), she has nothing to say. A single tear falls down our heroine's cheek.

Are we supposed to feel sympathy for the sacrifice of this woman's personal life to the hunt for Bin Laden? For the sacrifice of billions of dollars and thousands of lives to sustain this hunt? For the meaninglessness of it all, the nihilistic recognition that after the wars and torture and mindless killing on all sides, and the deaths of children, families, even CIA officers and Al Qaeda true believers, there was no meaning at all but the aching emptiness of the enterprise, its subordination to careerism on one hand, and eye-for-an-eye vengeance on the other?

For indeed, this movie is primarily a coming-of-age story. More than once the movie refers to the need of the up-and-coming generation to make their mark in the world, to take up the reins of leadership within the Company. Thus the war on terror, even the hunt for Bin Laden, becomes in the end the latest iteration of the "good cause," and there's room to make your mark and find glory in such an enterprise. In years to come, Maya and her peers can talk about the Bin Laden campaign as the "good old days," much as modern spooks may reminisce over single malts about the humidity in Saigon in the summer, or how they helped agents escape the fall of Teheran (in fact, there is a movie like that already, and it's up for an Oscar, too).

By the end of the movie, the memory of the horror of 9/11, which the audience hears via audio clips at the beginning of the movie, is forgotten. What's left is the empty triumph of a young woman, who climbs to recognition and heroism within the CIA over the bodies of numerous tortured individuals (all of whom, of course, are guilty and must be hiding something, as innocence is an impossibility in the  spook world), martyred agents, and outfoxed bureaucratic bosses, to get to... well to get where?

In the end, the movie has no vision of where it means to gets to. Stung by recent criticisms over her portrayal of torture, on January 16 Bigelow penned an op-ed in Los Angeles Times (emphasis in original):
Bin Laden wasn't defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.
Despite her statement that she "support[s] all protests against the use of torture," her qualification of torturers as people that "sometimes crossed moral lines" shows where her real alliances lie. The movie's nihilism lies in the fact that it exists only to be a propaganda piece for the CIA. It has nothing to say about history, about current events, about politics, about torture, or about what it means to be caught up in all this, except what the CIA has to say about any of it. The last bit of humanity -- that tear at the end -- is both cynical and possibly also real. It represented perhaps the last sign of humanity in a filmmaker who has sold out moral integrity for a deal with amoral types whose actual crimes she barely begins to comprehend, if she even ever cared.

After I walked out of this movie I felt sick, sick for myself, and sick for this country whose ability to ascertain what is right and what is wrong has fallen so far off the tracks that I have lost much hope I will see anything but disaster in this nation's future.


Anonymous said...

True, but has any American war movie portrayed the enemy in a favorable or empathetical light? Even my favorite, Apocalypse Now, did not do that. They never seem to say anything harsher than "war is hell". Oliver Stone is an exception, and a pariah too.

Valtin said...

To Anonymous: You make a good point. I think Clint Eastwood tried to do that in his movie Letters from Iwo Jima. I'm sure there are a few others. But for the most part, US culture is very much stuck in the viewpoint of its own ruling class, and the Other is someone to be feared, upon whom is projected our most awful fantasies and tabooed wishes.

Perhaps I should have noted that Zero Dark Thirty is in a long tradition of thinly disguised government propaganda films, more artfully done, however, than the 1960s Green Berets flick.

Mark said...

I recently made a video about how the CIA created Al Qaeda and used it to attack Egypt. Here it is, in case you are interested:

Burkey said...

Out of everything I've read on this film, which I haven't seen, this is one piece I appreciated the most. I think it articulates well the problems with how reality is depicted.
People will say "it's only a movie" but Hollywood movies are what people tend to remember about real historical events. And seeing as she presents it is "journalistic" I have a real problem with what's being excluded here.
Lies by omission are the most pernicious because the reality presented ends up being nothing like the actual reality, but since details are omitted, the watcher can get no sense of the real picture.

Dan O. said...

Nice review. Zero Dark Thirty is a very solid manhunt unfolding in a thrilling and entertaining way. It's not exactly '24', but the realism and implied accuracy does make it interesting to watch play out.

Zachary Smith said...

According to a blog I once ranked rather highly, the flick in question has a dominant theme everybody else is overlooking.

' The triumph of the determined "girl" '

That's it!

I'm always shocked when I discover somebody I considered to be reliable turns out not to be. So now there is nothing to do except remove the bookmark. If they someday produce something worth reading, undoubtedly somebody will link to it.

Search for Info/News on Torture

Google Custom Search
Add to Google ">View blog reactions

This site can contain copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my effort to advance understanding of political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.