Zero Dark Thirty, a horror film
Spoiler alert: the film sucks.
Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” spends almost the first hour of her two-and-a-half hour film showing the torture of an Arab prisoner by the CIA. The film begins with a dark screen and the taped conversations of people about to be incinerated in the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001. The torture is justified throughout the film as revenge for the “3,000 innocent lives” lost on 9/11. When that begins to dry up, the wellspring of vengeance is refreshed by the murder of CIA operatives in a suicide bombing.
Bigelow has insisted that her film doesn’t justify torture. She says it is just the honest depiction of the steps it took to bring down Osama bin Laden. Really? An honest and objective depiction? The story is told from the point of view of Maya, a CIA operative who takes on the task of fighting her male-dominated bureaucracy to find the thread that can lead to her personal triumph and vindication. She’s Rambo with no holds barred. We’re meant to identify with her.
All that pain she inflicts on prisoners, all that horrible violence on both sides, all that pity and terror ultimately leads to her catharsis and our own. We’ve seen it all before. Good guys (and gals) have to break the rules sometimes to get good things done. The Rolling Stones said it best in “Salt of the Earth”: “Say a prayer for the common foot soldier. Spare a thought for his back breaking work.” When Americans see the film they will identify with Maya and will believe that torture was justified.
When Arab nationalists see the film—Arabs who are offended by the CIA drone bases around Mecca propping up corrupt Saudi princes; Arabs who identify with the struggle of Palestinians for their own country and are frustrated by the U.S. support for Israel in blocking those efforts; Arabs who are horrified by the murder of innocent women and children, first by sanctions against Iraq, then by the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and finally by the drone war and its faceless terrorist bombs—then, those Arabs will use it as a recruiting film for suicide bombers.
The film makes no attempt to understand how Arabs or Muslims feel. It perpetuates the myth of American Invincibility. America is all-powerful because our hearts are pure—even when we have to do terrible things. When we do terrible things like torture and kill innocent women and children it’s because bad people make us do that because they don’t understand how pure we are, and, as George W. Bush said, “They hate our freedoms.” And, as the film seems to say, America always wins because God is on our side.
The myth of American Invincibility perpetuates dangerous myths about the victories of American Imperialism.
We left Vietnam because the anti-war movement in America weakened our resolve and finally touched the conscience of our national leaders. No! We left Vietnam because we were driven out by a massive public uprising that eventually engulfed the American Embassy. Remember the helicopter lifting the last U. S. collaborators off the roof?
We left Iraq voluntarily because we had finally established democratic institutions. No! We left Iraq because they insisted on it. George W. Bush had signed an agreement to leave at the end of 2011, and, no matter how much Obama asked them to change their minds, the Iraqis insisted on our following that agreement. Obama gets credit for ending the war in Iraq, when, really, he did what he could to perpetuate it.
There is little hope that the American people will ever appreciate how badly they’ve been duped by the myth of American Invincibility and the flag-waving jingoism of American Imperialism as long as Hollywood continues to perpetuate this fraudulent patriotism.
“Zero Dark Thirty” allows the audience to get even with the terrorists for 9/11. But the sweetness of revenge soon grows bitter. We learn nothing from it. We are left empty and ashamed—guilty now of the same crime we punished.
A better and more useful film would have been about how the murder of Osama bin Laden was seen by the average Arab on the street. That would have been a film that would have contributed to our understanding of the rest of the world.
But, instead, we have a film that reinforces our prejudices, affirms our ignorance and isolates us even further by wrapping us ever so much more tightly in the flag.