Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and the Myth of Hollywood


Three US Senators, including Republican ex-Presidential candidate John McCain, pointed to its apparent factual inaccuracies in suggesting that intelligence gathered from torture helped track down Osama Bin Laden. Academics and journalists have expressed similar reservations, highlighted the film’s ‘amoral’ depiction of CIA torture, and even made comparisons between director Kathryn Bigelow and Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. It performed below expectations in the Oscar nominations, and Academy member David Clennon, backed by Ed Asner and Martin Sheen, even proposed a full snub.

should document events as they actually happened, narrative choices do make political statements, and in Zero Dark Thirty those choices provide a very one-sided view of the ‘War on Terror’. The film uses the victims of 9/11, Madrid, 7/7 and other Al-Qaeda attacks as a constant reminder of western suffering, but never mentions a single civilian death at US hands. It suggests the infamous CIA ‘Detainee Program’ and its torture only targeted the guilty, and shows its agents struggling to find similarly effective means after its subsequent termination. And, yes, it shows torture to result, indirectly, in a major lead to Bin Laden.

the alternative reading is no less reductive and nauseating – the heroic Obama overthrows the evil Bush, ends torture, and uses righteous extra-judicial killing!)  The war becomes a necessary heroic endeavour that requires US brutality, even if it sometimes compromises ‘American values’ and psychologically scars its brave volunteers. According to Bigelow the torture scenes are depiction not endorsement, and we should not shoot the messenger, but depiction is representation, and one chooses how something is represented. In this case, it is a very partial and inward-looking view whose only note of discomfort is whether our violence harms us.

modus operandi was deep historical understanding and anti-establishment defiance. The isolation of Bigelow’s film begins to resemble scapegoating, especially since her last production, The Hurt Locker, had pretty much the same take on the same war and was almost universally applauded.

increase the role of the CIA at the expense of other major players, turn its agents into maverick heroes, and artificially ramp up fear of Iran.

its implications toward the partisan stalemates of current US politics lack depth, ignore systemic deficiencies, and tiresomely parrot the rhetoric of President Obama. Of course it does not go as far as to advocate torture (although its pro-war stance is barely concealed), but still represents the uncritical voice of the US film industry to no smaller degree than Zero Dark Thirty.

Jon Bailes is co-author of Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism (Pluto Press, 2012) and editor of www.stateofnature.org.

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