Finally saw Zero Dark Thirty yesterday. Here’s my review:
From an artistic point of view, I can say without hesitation that I was riveted by ZDT from beginning to end. Kathryn Bigelow is clearly one of our most talented American directors, particularly in her ability to construct a film with a palpable sense of documentary realism. In so many ways she, along with screenwriter Mark Boal, and her entire filmmaking team had me in the palm of their collective hand.
Which is why I also found ZDT to be a morally reprehensible piece of cinematic propaganda.
My experience of this film, among other things, was a profound reminder that movies have immense power to manipulate emotions and shape attitudes. I will readily admit that I found myself thoroughly caught up in the intensity of the CIA’s quest (embodied by character of the passionately driven agent “Maya”) to find and kill Usama Bin Laden. What can I say? For two and half hours, the film worked its magic on me. But when it was over, all I felt was dirty and ashamed. Sickened, actually, that I allowed myself to be seduced by what amounted to an insidious, if deeply sophisticated, revenge fantasy.
I use the word insidious very consciously here – particularly since the film purports to be a facts-driven portrayal of the CIA hunt for Bin Laden. In the very first frame, in fact, a title that tells us we are about to watch a film “based on firsthand accounts of actual events”. The next title we see are the words “September 11, 2001”. Then for at least a minute we listen to audio tapes of terrified 9/11 victims calling for help. One woman in the World Trade Center tells a 911 dispatcher that she is “burning up,” then says, crying, “I’m going to die aren’t I?” The dispatcher tells her to “stay calm” but there is no further answer. The last thing we hear is the dispatcher’s voice saying, “Oh my God…”
This is how the movie is framed from the outset: we are told we are watching a movie based on actual events, constructed from information gained from those who were there. We hear the very real voices of American citizens as they are being burned alive. Then we watch the “real-life” account of how the man responsible for their deaths was hunted down and killed by the CIA.
Listening to those terrified voices unsettled me to my core – but it was only after the movie was over that I realized how obscene their usage actually was. Why did the filmmakers choose to play these recordings? After all, aren’t the tragic events of 9/11 well-known to everyone in the world? If the filmmakers were really interested in making a dispassionate, non-fiction account of the hunt for Bin Laden, wouldn’t it have made more sense to start with the beginning of the hunt itself?
Indeed, Bigelow has been quoted as saying she used “a journalistic approach” to making this film and that “it doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” This, of course, is hogwash. If Bigelow and Boal were interested in presenting a “values-free” docudrama, they certainly wouldn’t have manipulated viewers with the voices of civilians being burned alive. After hearing the terrified voices of actual victims, how could we not cheer the CIA on as it uses any means necessary to find and kill Bin Laden?
Much has been written about the infamous scene in which one tortured Al-Qaeda operative gives up the name of Bin Laden’s courier after having been beaten, waterboarded, sexually humiliated and stuffed into a tiny wooden box. The inclusion of this scene – along with numerous references to information gained from tortured detainees – has been rightly condemned by many who point out it has already been conclusively determined that the information that ultimately led to Bin Laden’s execution was not gained through the use of torture. By including these scenes, ZDT conveys the incorrect – and dangerous – impression that torture “works.” It’s a critical point to which I have nothing to add except to refer you to Glenn Greenwald’s excellent pieces on the subject.
Beyond this issue, ZDT is dangerous for an even more essential reason. As Peter Haas pointed out in a recent piece for the Atlantic, it represents a new genre of “entertainment” he calls “embedded filmmaking”:
The fundamental problem is that our government has again gotten away with offering privileged access to carefully selected individuals and getting a flattering story in return. Embeds, officially begun during the invasion of Iraq, are deeply troubling because not every journalist or filmmaker can get these coveted invitations (Seymour Hersh and Matt Taibbi are probably not on the CIA press office’s speed dial), and once you get one, you face the quandary of keeping a critical distance from sympathetic people whom you get to know and who are probably quite convincing. That’s the reason the embed or special invitation exists; the government does its best to keep journalists, even friendly ones, away from disgruntled officials who have unflattering stories to tell…
(The) new and odd rub in the case of Zero Dark Thirty is that the product of this privileged access is not just-the-facts journalism but a feature film that merges fact and fiction. An already problematic practice—giving special access to vetted journalists—is now deployed for the larger goal of creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity (in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA). If the access that Boal and Bigelow received was in addition to access that nonfiction writers and documentarians received, I would be a bit less troubled, because at least the quotes in history’s first draft would be reliable, and that means a lot. But as it stands, we’re getting the myth of history before getting the actual history.
In other words, no matter how unsavory the protagonists behavior might be, no matter how “gritty” and “journalistic” the style, this is the CIA’s movie through and through.
In a more recent article, Greenwald pointed out the essential simplicity of ZDT’s world view:
All agents of the US government – especially in its intelligence and military agencies – are heroic, noble, self-sacrificing crusaders devoted to stopping The Terrorists; their only sin is all-consuming, sometimes excessive devotion to this task. Almost every Muslim and Arab in the film is a villainous, one-dimensional cartoon figure: dark, seedy, violent, shadowy, menacing, and part of a Terrorist network…
Other than the last scene in which the bin Laden house is raided, all of the hard-core, bloody violence is carried out by Muslims, with Americans as the victims. The CIA heroine dines at the Islamabad Marriott when it is suddenly blown up; she is shot at outside of a US embassy in Pakistan; she sits on the floor, devastated, after hearing that seven CIA agents, including one of her friends, a “mother of three”, has been killed by an Al Qaeda double-agent suicide-bomber at a CIA base in Afghanistan … Nobody is ever heard talking about the civilian-destroying violence brought to the world by the US.
The CIA and the US government are the Good Guys, the innocent targets of terrorist violence, the courageous warriors seeking justice for the 9/11 victims. Muslims and Arabs are the dastardly villains, attacking and killing without motive (other than the one provided by Bloomberg) and without scruples. Almost all Hollywood action films end with the good guys vanquishing the big, bad villain – so that the audience can leave feeling good about the world and themselves – and this is exactly the script to which this film adheres.
And in the end, that is what makes the technical and narrative brilliance of this film all the more pernicious. It creates the illusion of authenticity and truth when what we’re really watching is the CIA’s truth. One in which Bin Laden was never, once upon a time, an ally of the United States government. One in which “heroes” commit war crimes in secret locations in the furtherance of extra-judicial assassination. One that utterly ignores the realities of what the CIA’s civilian-destroying violence has wrought.
More than anything else, this is why I felt so very dirty after allowing myself to be entertained – and at times even moved – by Zero Dark Thirty.
Four Marines urinate on Taliban corpses. US troops burn Korans on an American army base. Now an American solider has murdered 16 Afghan civilians (including nine children and three women) before burning their corpses.
I’m not paying one whit of heed to what our leaders are telling us about this horrid tragedy. We’re told this act was the work of one lone deranged gunman – and it may well be, despite the fact that some eyewitnesses reported seeing more than one shooter – and other locals are publicly dubious that a single soldier could have shot and killed 16 civilians in houses over a mile apart then burned the bodies afterward.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s explanation: “War is hell.” Yes, I suppose it is, but we are all sadly, tragically deluded if we feel we can sugar-coat the insanity of war by dismissing this incident as the handiwork of one “rogue” gunman. I’m always fascinated that when these kinds of atrocities occur, defenders of war practically fall over themselves explaining that it was the work of “deranged individuals.” The sad truth is that in war, atrocities are the rule – not the exception.
Camillo “Mac” Bica, writing in a recent op-ed hit this point right on the head:
(Soldiers in war) are dehumanized and desensitized to death and destruction. Judgments of right and wrong – morality – quickly become irrelevant, and cruelty and brutality become a primal response to an overwhelming threat of annihilation. Consequently, atrocities in such an environment are not isolated, aberrant occurrences prosecuted by a few deviant individuals. Rather, they are commonplace, intrinsic to the nature and the reality of war, the inevitable consequence of enduring prolonged, life-threatening and morally untenable conditions, what psychologist Robert Jay Lifton describes as “atrocity-producing situations.”
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that there was only one shooter in this recent tragedy. Authorities report that he was in his fourth combat deployment in ten years and that he had suffered from a war-related head injury. Does this describe a “rogue” gunman to you? I’d say given the insane circumstances in which his nation had placed him, his actions sound eminently understandable.
Afghanistan is now officially our longest war – i.e., the longest example of mass psychosis in our nation’s history. Contrary to what our leaders have been telling us, we are not experiencing anything resembling “success” in that country. The longer we stay, the more we will continue to desensitize and dehumanize the young Americans we have seen fit to place there – and the more we will continue to rain death and destruction upon the people of that country. Indeed, our interminable presence in Afghanistan virtually guarantees we will see more “rogue” incidents like the one we witnessed this past weekend.
The classic midrashic commentary “Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael” teaches: When an arrow leaves the hand of a warrior he cannot take it back. God help us if we truly believe we can control the insane forces we’ve unleashed in Afghanistan. It’s time to come to our senses and bring our troops home.
In 2006, I was approached by JRC’s Peace Dialogue task force and asked if I would consider adding something to our Shabbat prayer for peace. Could we, they asked, introduce the prayer by reading the names of three American soldiers, three Iraqi civilians and three Afghan civilians who had been killed in these two ongoing wars?
The reason, they explained, was to remind ourselves that peace is not just an abstract concept. If we’re going to say a prayer for peace, we should own up to the stakes – we should acknowledge that we are citizens of nation at war, that war comes with a very real human cost, and that as American citizens, we are complicit in all actions made by our country.
Here’s some assigned reading and viewing this Memorial Day Weekend, starting with a very thoughtful article written by David R. Henderson, a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an economics professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.
Written immediately following Memorial Day 2008, Professor Henderson addressed the debate over the precise meaning of the day: is it to honor the soldiers who fought and died to preserve our “American freedoms,” or to mourn those who lost their lives in wars and to reflect on how to prevent this from happening in the future?
Henderson makes a compelling and eloquent case for the latter. His conclusion:
Exercise your freedom on future Memorial Days in any way that you wish as long as it’s peaceful. Take a minute or more to mourn the loss of so many U.S. soldiers and foreign soldiers, as well as millions of innocent civilians, who lost their lives because some government, whether the U.S., the USSR, the Nazis, or the Japanese government, killed them. Remember that almost all of those who die in war – even most of the soldiers who fought on the German side in World War II – are relatively innocent, even if their governments are not. And try your best to hold politicians accountable so that we’ll have fewer such deaths in the future rather than more.
After reading Henderson’s piece, please watch the clip above and sign this petition that encourages Congress to end the fruitless, tragic war in Afghanistan – currently the longest in American history.
PS: This just in today:
NATO has apologized for the deaths of Afghan civilians in an air strike in southern Afghanistan…
Authorities in Helmand Province said 14 civilians had died in the strike on May 28, 12 of them children.
What would MLK have to say about the war in Afghanistan if he was alive today? Astonishingly, the Pentagon suggests he would “recognize that we live in a complicated world” and that “our nation’s military should not and cannot lay down its arms.”
In honor of MLK Day, please watch the clip above and send it on to everyone you know. Then read this post by Robert Greenwald to learn about what one of the “most important peacemakers in our nation’s history” would likely say about the longest war in American history:
King decried the awful willingness of his country to spend $500,000 per each killed enemy soldier in Vietnam while so many Americans struggled in poverty. Yet last year, a conservative figure for the amount we spent per killed enemy fighter in Afghanistan was roughly $20 million.
King spoke of the “monumental dissent” that arose around the Vietnam War. “Polls reveal that almost 15 million Americans explicitly oppose the war in Vietnam,” he said. But today, 63 percent of Americans oppose the Afghanistan War, and when you do the math, that’s 196 million people, give or take the margin of error.
Dr. King also spoke of the “demonic, destructive suction tube” yanking resources and lives out of the fight to get Americans on their feet. That tube is still demonic and destructive: we’ve spent more than $360 billion on this war so far and it will cost us roughly $3 billion per week in the coming year. Add to that the 10,000 people, including about 500 U.S. troops and countless civilians who died last year alone, and you can see exactly what he’s talking about. The hope of our getting out of this abysmal economic vice is burning on the roadsides of Afghanistan every day we refuse to start bringing troops home.
No, it’s safe to say that Dr. King would not regard any conflict that killed 10,000 people in a year as a humanitarian exercise. Nor would he “understand” how a nation in the grip of an economic meltdown like this one could again throw lives and resources away for almost a decade. It’s safe to say that he would move beyond the “prophesying of smooth patriotism” and stand up to end this war that’s not making us safer and that’s not worth the cost.
Last week, I addressed the growing consensus that Afghanistan has become our 21st century Vietnam. If you agree, then please send this letter to your senators and representatives:
I am writing to urge you to speak out forcefully against extending the Afghanistan war through 2014 and to hold President Obama to his promise to begin a withdrawal of US troops in July of 2011.
The war in Afghanistan isn’t making Americans safer. We would be better off focusing on policing and intelligence to deal with terrorists and using diplomacy, development and humanitarian aid to help stabilize Afghanistan.
We can’t afford the loss of lives and dollars that would come with continuing this war, and I don’t want my tax dollars supporting a war that isn’t in our national interest.
I urge you to take advantage of every opportunity to speak out on this through opinion pieces, press releases, floor statements, media appearances and dear colleague letters. Please let me know what action you will take.
Click here to send the letter. I encourage you customize your message – even one sentence explaining your personal thoughts can make your statement all the more effective.
Some more food for thought from Derrick Crowe, Political Director of the Brave New Foundation:
The president doesn’t need to wait until next July to start pulling out troops. He should start withdrawals today, this afternoon, before dinner. He should drag generals by the four-starred shirt to the radios to give the signal if that’s what it takes. He should admit that our national interest isn’t served by throwing a 100,000-plus-troop war machine at a dirt-poor country to catch fewer than 100 nutcases. We should be in the White House’s face, in the Pentagon’s face, every day, telling them that we won’t tolerate mealy-mouthed dithering on “conditions” while our sons and daughters and brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers get ground into record numbers of amputees and coffin-filler.
And we should make damn sure they know we won’t sit around and watch while they drag kids too young to really remember how they felt on September 11, 2001, into a war that we’re too proud to admit is a failure.
It’s not working. It’s not going to work. It’s over. Shut it down. Bring them home.
Two must-reads on our war in Afghanistan, which is now officially the longest war in our nation’s history (and longer, btw, than the Soviets’ Afghani adventures in the 1980s):
Is Afghanistan, as some people say, America’s second Vietnam? Actually, a point-by-point comparison of the two wars suggests that it’s worse than that.
For starters, though Vietnam was hugely destructive in human terms, strategically it was just a medium-sized blunder. It was a waste of resources, yes, but the war didn’t make America more vulnerable to enemy attack.
The Afghanistan war does. Just as Al Qaeda planned, it empowers the narrative of terrorist recruiters — that America is at war with Islam. The would-be Times Square bomber said he was working to avenge the killing of Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And Major Nidal Hasan, who at Fort Hood perpetrated the biggest post-9/11 terrorist attack on American soil, was enraged by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
From the report of the Afghanistan Study Group released this past August:
Withdrawal from Afghanistan will be seen as a great victory for Al Qaeda and enhance its popularity and prestige. If we scale back our engagement in Afghanistan, they will simply follow us home.
Reality: It is our military presence that is actively aiding Taliban recruitment and encouraging disparate extremist groups to back one another. The Afghan mujaheddin did not “follow the Soviets home” after they withdrew. The same will be true once the United States reduces its military footprint and eventually disengages. In fact, military disengagement will undermine Al Qaeda’s claims that the United States is trying to “dominate” the Muslim world. A smaller U.S. footprint in the Muslim world will make Americans safer, not encourage terrorist attacks against American targets at home and abroad.
Of course the above report was released before the Obama administration changed its tune on a 2011 pullout – we’re now being told that American troops will be in Afghanistan until at least 2014.
That’s right: the longest war in US history is now guaranteed to continue on for at least four more years. To my mind, this is the very definition of “quagmire.”
On this point, Andrew Bachevich puts it more eloquently than I ever could (my third must-read):
So are we almost there yet? Not even. The truth is we’re lost in the desert, careening down an unmarked road, odometer busted, GPS on the fritz, and fuel gauge hovering just above E. Washington can only hope that the American people, napping in the backseat, won’t notice.