Monday, July 22, 2013

No Tortured Conscience: The Dubious Patriotism of Zero Dark Thirty

In August, 1945, news of the dropping of nuclear bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was greeted by Americans with much singing and dancing in the streets. Tens of thousands of innocent people had been obliterated, hundreds of thousands more would have lifetime health complications, and the photos from the home front reflect unrestrained ebullience. In that very summer, my grandfather, having survived the European theater of war, was being redeployed to the Pacific. For him the dropping of the atomic bomb came as a tremendous relief. He warned me not to judge the macabre enthusiasm of celebrants. War was over, obviously at a tremendous physical cost, but the spiritual one, at least to me (born after the fact, true) seemed much harder to qualify.

I thought of that Times Square jubilation when a team of Navy SEALS executed Osama Bin Laden in the spring of 2011. There was the same moral ground compromised-- the US launched a military operation within a sovereign nation, murdering an unarmed man in his pajamas and several others without any kind of due process whatsoever-- leading to a similar burst of spontaneous ecstasy on the streets. Like nearly every American, I loathed Bin Laden, but that didn't mean I didn't think apprehending and trying him in a court of justice was the better tactic, not just on a legal standpoint, but a morally strategic one. And unlike the twin specter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his execution did not mean any kind of victory on the war on terror. Fundamentally, so long as our military occupies civilizations hostile to our presence and drone strikes rain death from the skies, there will always be an enemy. Bin Laden had been just a man, a symbolic and very famous one, yes, but not the soul of our boogyman.

For these reasons, I found Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty morally repugnant, not only because it lies to us-- intelligence gleaned from torture did not figure in the locating of Bin Laden's hideout-- but because it seems to condone not only "enhanced interrogation" but American impunity as well. No other country in the world would dream of sending in a special forces unit to assassinate another nation's citizens. Were Pakistani assassins to be airdropped over Dick Cheney's bunker, murdering the old man in his bed with televised masses cheering his execution afterwards, Americans, no matter their low opinion of the former VP would be appropriately disgusted. But this is exactly how US foreign policy manages its agenda-- it can do so because of a crisis of imagination in the American people.

If you read the newspapers not much is needed to describe the plot of Zero Dark Thirty. It begins with distressed audio from 9/11, segueing immediately to a CIA black site where a man is being tortured for information. Immediately then, we know where Bigelow stands on the Hammurabi Code. The scenes are necessarily brutal and any American who believes we should be above such nefarious interrogation methods will feel ashamed. But waterboarding, induced sleeplessness, and sexual humiliation give CIA agent Maya Lambert (Jessica Chastain) a lead. The good news is this leads to bin Laden. The bad news is this a lie: Bigelow prefaces her movie declaring the story is "based on actual events," then goes out of her way to endorse the necessary evil of torture with false claims. Even normally reptilian politicians like Diane Feinstein have taken issue with this fictionalization of reality. Acting director of the CIA, Michael Morell, has called bullshit on Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal.

Film critics, whose professions require them to suffer one banal blockbuster after another, have mostly praised the film, particularly its "taut" structure and climatic ending. That we already know what happens and that a crew of trained killers shooting an unarmed man in his bed is not exactly climatic is besides the point. There are moments when art veers dangerously into propaganda so that social critic Naomi Wolf's  comparison of Kathryn Bigelow to Nazi documentarian Leni Riefenstahl is apt: "Like Riefenstahl, you are a great artist. But now you will be remembered forever as torture's handmaiden." Overlooking the politics of a politically motivated film is not just absurd but irresponsible. Alas, Zero Dark Thirty, thrilling and competent as it might be, will not age well in a progressive future.

Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, and hundreds, if not thousands of other villains are dead. Not to mention tens of thousands of innocent people as a result of destabilization due to our meddling in the region, to say nothing of our own moral compromises with torture, spying, and murder. It would be a true constitutional crisis if more of us cared-- instead we see the jubilance of the crowd fist-pumping our culture of vigilante politics. Zero Dark Thirty is a work of nationalist polemics beholden to the status quo, a state of affairs far removed from core American values. That it was commercially and critically successful, in spite of the efforts of a vocal minority, is immensely disappointing.

Nevertheless I'm holding out, hoping that the tide will turn, not from without, but from within. Martin Luther King said the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. Bigelow's heroes are Navy SEALS, but there is probably not a few young talented filmmakers who see something noble in the efforts of someone like Edward Snowden, who is the very definition of a patriot, a man that risks everything, his reputation and his life, because he has high standards for his country and seems to understand the language of the Constitution better than our President. We don't know yet the outcome of this story, but hope that this narrative, once told, involves heroism, nary tragedy.

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