Roger Ebert’s Disappointing Review of Zero Dark Thirty

I really looked forward to reading Roger Ebert's review of Zero Dark Thirty. "What is taking him so long to review it?" I wondered. Was it possible he would duck the debate generated by the film?
Most of the time, I've agreed with and greatly enjoyed Ebert's reviews of movies that I've seen. I was especially impressed with his discussion of the 1915 film "Birth of  Nation", a film that glorified the KKK. According to Ebert, the movie was "credited with the revival of the popularity of the Klan, which was all but extinct when the movie appeared."
That piece about "Birth" made me particulary interested in what Ebert would say about Zero Dark Thirty. Would Ebert dare make many of the same points?
Ebert did a thorough job explaining why "Birth" was extremely innovative and accompished film-making despite the disgusting ideas it promoted.  Ebert wrote 
The film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. Blacks already knew that, had known it for a long time, witnessed it painfully again every day, but "The Birth of a Nation" demonstrated it in clear view, and the importance of the film includes the clarity of its demonstration. That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values. 
To understand "The Birth of a Nation" we must first understand the difference between what we bring to the film, and what the film brings to us. All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it. "The Birth of a Nation" is not a bad film because it argues for evil. Like [Nazi Film-maker] Riefenstahl’s “The Triumph of the Will,” it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil. 
If an accomplished director makes heroes out of the KKK, Ebert is prompted to ask if we "can we separate content from the craft". Why isn't the question provoked when a major director makes heroes out of the CIA?
Sadly, judging by Ebert's review of Zero Dark Thirty, no questions of any significance were prompted for him at all.
The film didn't quite work for Ebert as drama. Big deal.
As I recalled in another blog post, Phil Agee, the famous CIA whistleblower, said in 1975
"Millions of people all over the world had been killed or had their lives destroyed by the CIA and the institutions it supports"
The CIA's crimes dwarf the KKK's but the CIA can, nevertheless, be glorifed by Hollywood. Is that not a "mirror of our times and sadly of our values" – and an example of how much ignorance can be imposed on the citizens of a relatively free country? Zero Dark Thrity stands out because of the Oscar winning pedigree of the film-makers and the seriousness of their appoach. Stupid Hollywood comedies have glorified the CIA. This film, however, very explicitly claims to be journalistic in order to generate vicarious thrills, but is defended as "just a movie" when called out on its lies. 
The film is pro-torture in a much bigger way than many detractors have pointed out. You can't be pro-CIA without being pro-torture any more than you can be pro-KKK without being racist. 
Zero Dark Thirty may do for the CIA what "Birth" did for the Klan.
A small part of me hoped that Roger Ebert would at least make that connection.


Katherine Bigelow is a real piece of work. She has claimed that she had no "agenda" and did not "want to judge" (as if that were remotely possible in making this film). On the other hand, completely contradicting that, she has very clearly stated that she set out to make make pro-CIA propaganda: 
"I want them [the audience] to be moved. I want them to know that this is the story of the intelligence community finding this man. These are incredibly brave individuals, dedicated individuals who sacrificed a lot to accomplish this mission…" 

Leave a comment