[Marxism] Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and the Myth of Hollywood

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Feb 8 06:51:09 MST 2013

Counterpunch Weekend Edition February 8-10, 2013

Framing History
Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and the Myth of Hollywood

A lot has been said about Zero Dark Thirty in recent weeks.  Three US 
Senators, including Republican ex-Presidential candidate John McCain, 
pointed to its apparent factual inaccuracies in suggesting that 
intelligence gathered from torture helped track down Osama Bin Laden. 
Academics and journalists have expressed similar reservations, 
highlighted the film’s ‘amoral’ depiction of CIA torture, and even made 
comparisons between director Kathryn Bigelow and Nazi filmmaker Leni 
Riefenstahl.  It performed below expectations in the Oscar nominations, 
and Academy member David Clennon, backed by Ed Asner and Martin Sheen, 
even proposed a full snub.

At the root of the controversy are valid criticisms.  While I would 
argue against the notion that a work of fiction (no matter how it 
presents itself) should document events as they actually happened, 
narrative choices do make political statements, and in Zero Dark Thirty 
those choices provide a very one-sided view of the ‘War on Terror’.  The 
film uses the victims of 9/11, Madrid, 7/7 and other Al-Qaeda attacks as 
a constant reminder of western suffering, but never mentions a single 
civilian death at US hands.  It suggests the infamous CIA ‘Detainee 
Program’ and its torture only targeted the guilty, and shows its agents 
struggling to find similarly effective means after its subsequent 
termination.  And, yes, it shows torture to result, indirectly, in a 
major lead to Bin Laden.

Truth aside, through its inclusions and omissions Zero Dark Thirty 
constructs a narrow frame of realpolitik propaganda.  (Interestingly, 
the alternative reading is no less reductive and nauseating – the heroic 
Obama overthrows the evil Bush, ends torture, and uses righteous 
extra-judicial killing!)  The war becomes a necessary heroic endeavour 
that requires US brutality, even if it sometimes compromises ‘American 
values’ and psychologically scars its brave volunteers.  According to 
Bigelow the torture scenes are depiction not endorsement, and we should 
not shoot the messenger, but depiction is representation, and one 
chooses how something is represented.  In this case, it is a very 
partial and inward-looking view whose only note of discomfort is whether 
our violence harms us.

Yet the combined magnitude of criticism against Zero Dark Thirty, and 
especially the idea of an Oscar snub, risk loss of perspective. 
Critical evaluation is admirable, but when it becomes shock, even a 
sense of betrayal, expressing amazement that a major film could be so 
pro-establishment, it is less so.  Surely nobody can really believe such 
affirmative political ideas are new to US cinema, or that Zero Dark 
Thirty is some aberration of Hollywood standards.  It is as though the 
industry never used real wars, or history in general, as cover for 
blinkered ideology, and its usual modus operandi was deep historical 
understanding and anti-establishment defiance.  The isolation of 
Bigelow’s film begins to resemble scapegoating, especially since her 
last production, The Hurt Locker, had pretty much the same take on the 
same war and was almost universally applauded.

Indeed, this year’s other Oscar nominees, the ones nobody wants to snub, 
have similar issues.  While Argo, for example, begins with some 
historical perspective to 1979’s Iranian Revolution, explicitly stating 
the US role in the Shah’s brutal dictatorship, this only serves as a 
platform from which to redeem the reputation of the CIA.  Again, 
dramatic licence is to be expected, but the decisions made in bringing 
Operation Argo to the screen specifically increase the role of the CIA 
at the expense of other major players, turn its agents into maverick 
heroes, and artificially ramp up fear of Iran.

Then there is Lincoln – more liberal, but no less an establishment 
friendly political statement.  Of course, Spielberg’s biopic was never 
likely to invoke the controversy of a modern historical piece, as 
passions around the account of the passing of the 13th Amendment are 
hardly fervent nowadays, but its narrow political stance is no less 
present for that.  It perfectly illustrates cultural theorist Fredric 
Jameson’s idea that today’s commodity culture cannot represent history 
as anything other than its surface image.  So, the inclusion of 
stovepipe hats and impressive facial hair, along with various other 
meticulously researched superficial details, disguises that underneath 
is nothing but modern political doctrine.

Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln is not an actual character but an iconic 
image given life, embodying at all times the appearance, speech, and 
motivations (conviction, wisdom, kindness) that the image is meant to 
represent.  Even in private this Lincoln never breaks the facade, and in 
fact his family only serves to demonstrate the depth of his principles, 
as a kind of sacrifice to politics and ‘the people’.  Every other 
character in the film, meanwhile, is simply a foil for Lincoln’s 
retrospectively applied postmodern identity politics – memorising his 
speeches, hanging on his words, laughing politely at his proverbial 
anecdotes, and granting him the final say in disagreements.  The 
political jousting is merely for show, as Lincoln’s towering rationality 
always wins, and opposing views are presented only to be quickly refuted 
with ‘self-evident’ certainty.  So, a potentially interesting discussion 
between Lincoln and radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens, ends 
abruptly as Lincoln explains a Utopian ideal is like a compass – it 
always points you true north but cannot inform you of obstacles along 
the way, so following it blindly will land you in a swamp.  Stevens 
might have countered, say, that concentrating too much on what’s 
directly in front of you can take you off course altogether, but 
ambiguity is not welcome here.

Instead, the film’s aim is to give modern liberal reason a sense of 
historical permanence, and affirm the US political system.  It tells us 
that, for all its flaws, the system works, given well chosen pragmatism 
and compromise, and that limited representative democracy (electing a 
leader who knows best) is the route to progress.  Thus, history is made 
by the great liberal individual and universally loved embodiment of the 
American dream.  It is a familiar treatise about American values, the 
political game, and the power of rational persuasion.  As such, its 
implications toward the partisan stalemates of current US politics lack 
depth, ignore systemic deficiencies, and tiresomely parrot the rhetoric 
of President Obama.  Of course it does not go as far as to advocate 
torture (although its pro-war stance is barely concealed), but still 
represents the uncritical voice of the US film industry to no smaller 
degree than Zero Dark Thirty.

In short, Hollywood does not need interfering government agents to 
ensure uncritical adoption of official ideologies hidden behind 
slavishly recreated period details.  The idea, for example, that Zero 
Dark Thirty is compromised because of its collaboration with the CIA – 
granting access to inside information and authentic technology – is only 
partially relevant.  Regardless of who is involved, authenticity often 
comes at the expense of the truth that historical fiction should reveal 
– that history is never done justice from a single, dominant 
perspective.  The isolation of Zero Dark Thirty is an attack on the tip 
of the iceberg refusing to acknowledge what lies beneath.  Despite 
pretensions to the contrary, Hollywood is in many ways part of the 

Jon Bailes is co-author of Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US 
State Terrorism (Pluto Press, 2012) and editor of www.stateofnature.org.

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