Zero Dark Thirty’s blessed America

Kathryn Bigelow’s film The Hurt Locker was a strange and tedious event. For a film about a bunch of guys who defuse bombs it was often completely lacking in suspense. Bigelow’s stated intent to make a film that showed what it was really like ‘boots on the ground’ in Iraq resulted in a film that seemed extremely contrived, was often unconvincing, and flagged every plot twist thirty minutes before it happened. The Hurt Locker was a film two hours long that felt like four.

The Hurt Locker was partly a film about Men and War – men bonding over war, men and their vast emotional depths. It depicts war as men’s spiritual drug of addiction, poor sensitive fools that they are, rather than war as a catastrophic geopolitical event deliberately contrived by those who will benefit from it.

Actually if you really wanted to see an idiotic film about men magically bonding at the end of their tether, you’d be better off catching The Grey (Liam Neeson’s masculine poetic nature battles for survival with his band of bros in cruel godless blizzards while being pursued by huge man-eating wolves, and a beautiful woman mystically communes with him from an abode of love) or Tony Scott’s Unstoppable (downtrodden but honest working-class joes Denzel Washington and Chris Pine roll up their oil-stained sleeves and redeem their flawed natures by chasing down a runaway train hauling a cargo of hazchem while their women watch in awe). They are stupid films, and tell stupid Hollywood lies, but they’re not iniquitous like The Hurt Locker or its successor Zero Dark Thirty.

The Hurt Locker was, in essence, a feelgood film. Audiences could leave the cinema thinking they had seen the reality of the Iraq War, when in fact they had seen no such thing. The Hurt Locker was a film of reassurance. The viewer had their sensibilities very lightly traumatised – occasional bits of sadism serving that purpose well – just enough to feel as though they had witnessed something emotionally meaningful.

Critics lapped it up, which goes to show that wooden dialogue, wooden characters and a script pre-fabbed out of cliches are no barrier to cinematic acclaim. The media circus around Zero Dark Thirty has been astounding, as plaudits rain down from critics, and a hysterical debate has erupted about whether Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture. It’s had quite a build-up, soaring to heights Bigelow probably didn’t imagine. But on actual viewing Zero Dark Thirty stays unsurprisingly true to Bigelow’s own style. It’s ponderous, stiff, lazy, fraudulent, uninspired and boring to boot.

Zero Dark Thirty takes a standard Hollywood cliché – that of the maverick loner pursuing the truth, seeking to expose villainy when all around are incompetent, unwilling or corrupt – and grafts it onto the pursuit of Osama bin Laden. The loner is a CIA intelligence officer, Maya (a curious name for Bigelow to give her major character): glamorous, driven, sympathetic.

Maya unveils herself at the beginning of the film, pulling off a black full-face balaclava, revealing long flaming red hair where we expected to see some shaven-headed grunt. It reminded me of a recent entry in The Onion’s ‘American Voices’ feature, that claims to interview people on the street to get their response to topical issues.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced today the removal of a 1994 Pentagon rule that banned women from officially serving on the front lines. What do you think?

‘Oh, man. I can’t wait to see the look on an insurgent’s face when a soldier removes their helmet to reveal long, flowing blonde hair.’

Michael Moore has suggested that Zero Dark Thirty is a film of female empowerment, a film that tells us that men should listen to women a lot more. This seems a bizarre reading, and a bit weird for a film that doesn’t even pass the Bechdel Test. Sure, there’s a woman in the film, but she is just as obsessed with the pursuit of a man as any standard Hollywood potboiler. It’s just that this man happens to be Osama bin Laden. And in fact the film ends after bin Laden’s death with Maya in tears, as though she had just lost a lover

The viral debate over Zero Dark Thirty, has been more or less about whether it implicitly gives the thumbs-up to torture as a tool of intelligence gathering. I’ll come back to that in a tick. For the most part, Zero Dark Thirty, like The Hurt Locker, is a film that attempts to massage our wobbly bourgeois need for the authentic. That is probably its true function. But as a side-effect – and not a negligible one – it also decontextualises the War on Terror, situating it as a psychodrama of individuals, who we are intended to sympathise with.

Numerous US critics, bloggers and so on have commented on the hyper-realism of the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty. I’m reminded of the previous Pope saying of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, ‘That is how it was’. That is what it looked like, ‘boots on the ground’. It’s curious, then, that the scenes of torture in Zero Dark Thirty seem so stagey, contrived and unconvincing. You have to wonder what Americans, right and left, think torture is, and why they think Zero Dark Thirty is a realistic depiction of it. I guess that as in The Hurt Locker, the scenes of sadistic violence look to add a little frisson of authenticity for the audience to savour and digest.

The debate about whether Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture seems as strange as the film. Clearly the film shows the use of torture as a routine part of CIA interrogation techniques, and useful information being gained from it. At one stage, after the use of torture has become a forbidden technique (really), one of the characters seems to complain that if they could still use ‘enhanced interrogation’ they’d be able to find out very quickly if bin Laden is in fact in the compound in Abbottabad. The truth about Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of torture, I think, is that Bigelow doesn’t actually know what she thinks of torture and tries to have it both ways: it’s bad, and it’s also good.

I’m reminded of a scene in the latest entry in the Bourne canon, The Bourne Legacy. CIA oik Jeremy Renner, distressed after some American atrocity, questions his boss Edward Norton about the value of their work. Norton barks at him, ‘What we do is morally indefensible, and absolutely necessary!’ Which, as I recall, was something of Himmler’s argument when speaking to his SS of the massacres he expected them to carry out; It’s unpleasant comrades, but only the truly heroic can do it.

The critical response, the handwringing and the moral posturing about torture in Zero Dark Thirty, seems to buy into Bigelow’s wishy-washy and deceitful framing of it. It asks the question of torture as to its utilitarian or moral purposes, as though it were really difficult to decide if torture is good or not. Actually, there are probably better ways in which torture itself could be interrogated, ways that situate the use of torture in the context of US imperial politics and US exceptionalism. With this in mind, a question like, ‘What is the US military’s use of torture being used for?’ becomes much more interesting.

In Errol Morris’ 2008 documentary Standard Operating Procedure, and Philip Gourevitch’s accompanying book, the torture at Abu Ghraib is depicted very differently than the torture in Zero Dark Thirty. In Standard Operating Procedure, torture is shown as a tool of political humiliation, an avenue for expressions of racism and so on. But it is also revealed as a description of the racist, misogynist, elitist nature of the US military, and of the structure of American class.

In Standard Operating Procedure, torture is not just something that the military can choose to do or not to do. The torture at Abu Ghrain grew not only out of sanctioned action, but out of military incompetence, and out of the embedded military culture of racism, cruelty, casual violence and a violent sexism.

Those convicted of their behaviour at Abu Ghraib were all of low rank and two were women. They were convicted of minor breaches of procedure or military ethics. They had little power and were at the mercy of military courts and popular opinion, fanned by an ill-informed media. They were not glamorous fighters in the war on terror, though they were encouraged to sometimes think of themselves as critical elements in the defeat of al-Qaeda. They were all poor, sometimes recruited into the military straight out of school, and, at least in the beginning, fully saturated in the narrative of a blessed America seeking recompense for a dastardly attack on its freedoms.

Zero Dark Thirty is a film without irony, and its own saturation in American exceptionalism is decidedly unambiguous. There’s a lot to dislike about it, like its duplicity and attempts to generate moral weight while claiming to be ‘objective’. Mostly though, it’s just dull and the scary thing is that it has generated so much debate. Perhaps it just reveals what we all already knew to be true: that American exceptionalism is alive and well, and the more atrocities the US commits, the more blessed it believes itself to be.

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright’s essays have won the Eureka St Prize, the Nature Conservancy Prize, the Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize and the Scarlett Award, and been shortlisted for several others. In 2017, he won the Viva La Novella Prize. His winning novel, A Second Life, was published by Seizure, and also won the Woollahra Digital Literary Prize for Fiction.

More by Stephen Wright ›

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  1. Terrible film in so many ways.

    Its biggest issue, I think, is not so much its depiction of the CIA’s use of torture specifically, but with its pseudo-real depiction of the CIA in general: as a dedicated, highly competent organisation that treats the “exigencies” of torture (and presumably renditions, assassinations, puppet governments and lies) with distaste, and is full of driven, self-sacrificing and virtuous professionals whose principal goal is to protect American lives.

    This view is typified by the scene in which Mark Strong is wheeled out to give an impassioned once-more-unto-the-breach speech about how “We are failing!”

    I mean, this is the CIA! An organisation renowned for corruption, links to off-grid criminal activity, regime-tinkering, ulterior motives and outright duplicity. Has anyone come across verified insider stories that make this picture of the organisation seem honestly plausible? Carefully crafted propaganda.

    1. That’s an interesting point, that I could have brought out a lot more. At Abu Ghraib the CIA’s flouting of any kind of procedure and record keeping, as well as their cowboy arrogance, was well known to everyone. I agree, one could easily categorise ZD30 as propaganda. It doesn’t reflect badly on the CIA at all.

        1. Thanks for that . I’m a bit of a fan of Wired’s Danger Room. You find the weirdest stuff about the US military’s weird programs in there. It’s like Return of the Jedi meets the KKK.

    2. Don’t be foolish. The CIA is a government organisation like any other. Most people that work for it are honest, hardworking normal people like you. And yes, there is probably a small percentage of people that are corrupt and do bad things. However if you’re alluding to some vast evil CIA propaganda conspiracy, well… its as if you were an anonymous poster on the internet….:)

      1. t#You mean that the CIA is just like the Salvation Army or the Dept of Ageing?
        We know that the CIA has undertaken many covert operations and contributed to the success of many oppressive regimes. Obama’s current drone program is a CIA op.
        The thing about cruel and ruthless organisations like the CIA, flying the flag of US exceptionalism and specialness, is that many people work for them driven by wat they could consider to be altruistic motives. It’s the same with the US military. Many young people sign up because they are convinced they are ‘defending freedom’ and so forth.
        I suspect that the trauma that many are afflicted with post-combat, is at least for some, not just the result of the experience of repeated extreme violence, but also of the knowledge that all things they believed in were a lie and now that they are no longer useful as cannon fodder can now be trashed.

    1. The naturalism is interesting. The intro to the film and the 9/ll phone collage definitely sends the message that the style will be all cinema verite. But it just makes the deception all the weirder, as if someone had told you a story about their life, complete with photos and artifacts and then said that parts of it didn’t quite happen that way.

  2. Nice point about US exceptionalism: made me realise just how much that term excuses, justifies, rationalises, naturalises inhumane US practices. I wonder too about the ennui, why the boredom you talk about has become almost a filmic convention of post 9/11 war films when shot in the modish naturalistic cinema verite style? Vietnam War films mostly had a totally different vibe. There is some sort of psychopathology at work there for sure. I guess I’ll have to wait to see the alleged anti-Obama “drone films” to decide.

    They had their own faults, but I don’t recall many Vietnam era feature films being feel good / existential / romantic dramas like the post 9/11 films described here. What has caused the change, I wonder – conditions of war? generic styles? – and why? If not consciously propagandistic, is it that US exceptionalism has effectively silenced mainstream objections to the way the US conducts its “War on Terror”, leaving feature filmic representations floundering around trying to fill some vague critical void?

  3. Interesting question. The Vietnam movies are often band of bros movies aren’t they? And often distinguished by their depictions of violence and horror and so on, and tragedy. Vietnam was the war that the US lost and so on, but I guess that Iraq needs to be portrayed in a different way maybe -as the moral anguish of a blessed nation that only wants to do good, but is tormented by evildoers jealous of its freedoms.

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