[Marxism] The truth about Zero Dark Thirty: this torture fantasy degrades us all

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 25 06:56:58 MST 2012

(Since Michael Wolff is a rather conventional thinker I was surprised to 
see him break with the critical/political consensus on this film.)


The truth about Zero Dark Thirty: this torture fantasy degrades us all

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's film claims to be 'based on a true 
story' but no non-fiction writer could take such liberties

         Michael Wolff	
         guardian.co.uk, Monday 24 December 2012 12.10 EST	

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty
Jessica Chastain's character in the new film Zero Dark Thirty is 
reputedly based on the CIA analyst known as 'Jen'. Photograph: Snap 
Stills/Rex Features

Zero Dark Thirty is a dreary and predictable movie (predictable even 
beyond that we know Osama bin Laden's fate). Also, it's a bit copy-cat. 
It's Homeland without the character quirks. ("OK… picture this… 
Homeland… but the girl isn't nuts – just super-focused. What about 
that?" is something like how the screenwriter, Mark Boal, must have 
pitched it.)

The controversy about the movie involves its unambiguous cause and 
effect assertion that the torture of al-Qaida principals and hangers on 
was the key to finding Osama bin Laden – ie: torture works. Pretty much 
everybody in the intelligence community in a position to say this isn't 
true has said it isn't. And then there's the 
girl-alone-against-the-world narrative: Maya, our heroine, thinks about 
nothing else but Osama bin Laden for almost 10 years and because of this 
single-minded obsession, American forces are able to find and kill him. 
That according to everybody and anybody, and to common sense, is hogwash 

A non-fiction writer couldn't do this. If you did this and maintained, 
to the extent that the makers of Zero Dark Thirty appear to maintain, 
that this was true, and with as little documentary evidence, either no 
one would publish you or you would have to invent evidence to get 
published. And then, you'd invariably be found out, scandal would ensue 
and your name would be blackened.

Movies, on the other hand, even when they represent themselves to be 
non-fiction like Zero Dark Thirty, are still what we accept as a 
"dramatization", so therefore not really real. How that is different 
from a non-fiction author using novelizing techniques to bring to life 
his story – and subsequently being humiliated by Oprah when he turns out 
to have significantly stretched the truth – I don't know.

It certainly isn't that this is just mere suspension of disbelief and 
that, when the lights go on, we go back to known reality. In fact, Zero 
Dark Thirty, wrapped in the great praise that invariably accompanies 
middle-brow claptrap claiming to cope with the big issues of the day, 
will compete as a true narrative for how al-Qaida was dealt with and 
Osama dispatched. (Similarly, The Social Network, an almost entirely 
made-up version of the founding of Facebook, has pretty much become the 
rosetta stone of social-media history.)

Notably, the makers of this silly, stick-figure and cartoonish movie, 
director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Boal, are not out on talk 
shows defending the verisimilitude of their film. Their affect – which 
perhaps journalists caught in the act of making things up ought to study 
– is much more sphinx-ike. They are artists and don't have to lower 
themselves to defend or respond.

It's helpful to them that the convenient reverse effect of all these 
Washington and CIA types saying it isn't true is that it actually adds 
to the illusion that it is true.

It helps too that reviewers of a certain stature – Manhohla Dargis, for 
instance, in the New York Times – are willing to separate truth from 
drama or art. Putting actual facts and documentary evidence aside, what 
you have, according to Dargis is "a seamless weave of truth and drama… a 
wrenchingly sad, soul-shaking story about revenge and its moral costs… 
the most important American fiction movie about Sept. 11." Nice work if 
you can get it.

But make no mistake truth is what is being sold here.

Without the pretense or, in some ultimate post-modern sense, the fiction 
that this is true, what you would have here, with all the lovely staged 
scenes of cinematic torture, is something as bent and campy and 
revisionist as Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ.

If this were more accurately packaged – instead of "based on a true 
story", something like "quite an extreme departure from a true story" – 
the drama would seem puerile, slapdash and unconvincing. A dramatic 
cliché. Fiction and drama work to the extent that you find yourself 
believing that they might, actually, at least in some parallel reality, 
be true. In this instance, the extent to which we might naturally 
believe the story line – CIA girl alone against the world doing nothing 
for 10 years but, against the wishes of her superiors, searching for 
Osama – would be minimal. Except if we are told it actually is true. 
Then, ipso facto, relying on our passivity and credulousness, our 
skepticism is less.

Bigelow, more a special-effects cinematographer than a movie director, 
and Boal, a run-of-the-mill scriptwriter, have, like many in Hollywood, 
only average or sub-par dramatic skills. They are helped and elevated by 
"real events". Truth is a dramatic crutch.

In some further moral inversion, it is probably not the case that they 
actually believe their movie to be true. Rather this is, for them, a 
convenient construct, a rhetorical rouse, a vulgar and opportunistic 
lie, which the entire apparatus of making and selling this film is happy 
to join: truth, or the appearance of it, sells.

If Bigelow and Boal tried for a deal on a fictionalized version of the 
hunt for Osama, a fantasy, an entertainment, they probably couldn't have 
gotten it. That would be ho-hum.

But back to torture, which is what this movie is really about.

The big "truth" point here is about the efficiency and efficacy of 
torture. Using these terrible methods is, for better or worse, how we 
got the intel to ultimately find Osama.

But that is only the surface message, the cover story if you will. The 
real story, the real truth the filmmakers are trying to subliminally 
present, is about the beauty of torture.

The bald claim, or the meta construct, or the wink wink about this being 
a serious and important version of a big issue is really just so we can 
get to the total sexiness of physical abuse. You need a higher purpose 
to get out-and-out pervy stuff like this into a big-budget movie. 
History is the justification.

Kathryn Bigelow is a fetishist and a sadist, which, in a literary sense, 
certainly has a fine tradition. But without some acknowledgement that 
this is her lonely journey and not a shared one – not our collective 
reality, not a set of accepted assumptions but, for better or worse, her 
own particular, problematic kink – all you have is a nasty piece of pulp 
and propaganda.

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