Zero Dark Thirty: Embarrassed No More
I write this comment on Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty more out of a sense of moral obligation and outrage rather than as an evaluation of a serious work. I find nothing at all to recommend this film, so impoverished is it at every political, moral, aesthetic, and philosophical level. I should say at the outset that I dislike Bigelow immensely, and have been at odds with friends over her work. Bigelow has been applauded by many cinephiles; there is reason for so doing, since she is a woman filmmaker, and we are most obviously in need of women in an art form still dominated by men. But her celebration may take attention away from important women we do have in cinema (Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Catherine Corsini are only a few examples). More important, we note Bigelow as a phallic woman serving the interests of the commercial industry and the ideology supporting it.
By this I do not mean that she wishes to have a penis. Rather, she imbibes and projects the ideology of patriarchal capitalism, and the imperialism that is the central topic of her two recent films, The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Or perhaps I should say that she masks this imperialism, since the policy underneath the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan is nowhere in evidence in her film, amazing since there could hardly be risk in exploring imperialist ambition at this stage, given how much the trail has been blazed by a variety of artists, from documentarians like Robert Greenwald to narrative filmmakers like Brian De Palma. Even the liberal MSNBC television channel offers a very derivative expose on the Iraq monstrousness entitled Hubris.
Bigelow’s response has essentially been that she is offering action fare, or a collage of material from which the viewer can draw her/his own conclusion. Of course viewers always interpret, but the failure of the artist not to confront explicitly political material is a principal index of Bigelow’s moral bankruptcy.
Bigelow’s films have always contained enough frisson, enough of a patina of film school sophistication that her overall enterprise has gone unquestioned, to a point that some reviewers of an ostensibly progressive bent seem absolutely blind to what is on the screen. Her first film, The Loveless (1982), about a listless group of outlaw bikers, is clearly the kind of exercise that flows from film education. It is the work of an impoverished sensibility, one grounded in film alone, with the rest of the humanities left on the shelf. We hardly need Bigelow’s DVD commentary track to know that the film adds nothing to the sources to which she must pay homage, such as The Wild One and Scorpio Rising. Her’s seems to be a temperament born of the video age, yet another movie brat, unable to discriminate, to figure the significance of her own enterprise, in order to give a piece of art a sense of value; indeed, one wonders if she has any real criteria for establishing value. She is a temperament of Tarantino’s ilk, but without his false humor, crudity, and nihilism.
I don’t want to go through each and every film made by Bigelow, simply because so few have interested me. Her horror film Near Dark (1987) caught my attention many years ago. It seemed to be her response to the horror renaissance of the 1960s and 70s, when the key works of Romero, Larry Cohen, Tobe Hooper, and others were released. If this is the case, Near Dark may be a template for understanding Bigelow. The key concern of the progressive wing of the horror cinema (meaning all the very best, from the Weimar cinema to the present) is to question the demarcation of self and other, the normal and the abnormal. Bigelow’s film does quite the opposite, with its horrific vampire clan (coded as “poor white trash”) sadistically murdering, while taking over the life of a Midwestern farm boy until they are brought low in the film’s operatic finale (totally unwarranted, since opera with such final tropes works within the realm of tragedy, and there is little tragic about the vampire family). Some scenes contain typical Bigelow misjudgments that seem her way of displaying erudite hipness and sophistication, such as dressing the repulsive vampire child-bully in a William Burroughs T-shirt. Where is Burroughs’s left anarchism, his hatred of power in all forms, on display in this film? Far worse, the clan leader, Jesse, is said to be so old that he “fought for the South,” that is, for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Admittedly, the Confederate States of America has always been honored in the American cinema (Gone with the Wind being the most egregious example) and throughout American culture, certainly with the right, as the North embraced fully (it wasn’t hard to) the racist ideology of the South. But is it not reasonable at this date (or in 1987) for a person with benefit of a middle-class education to know that saying “fought for the South” is tantamount to saying “fought with the SS” or “fought for the Third Reich,” since the slavocracy of the Confederacy represented the modern era’s most regressive, totalitarian political movement in the western world before European fascism, one recognized as such by historians, and certainly civil rights organizations, since Reconstruction? Near Dark is fascinating for its hyperbole (the performance by Bill Paxton, which resembles Max Baer, Jr. as Jethro Bodine in the 60s TV show The Beverly Hillbillies), so much so that it continues to be subject of special pleading.
My dear friend Barry Grant makes an interesting plea by citing Allen Ginsberg’s comment about Middle America being the “heart of the vortex.” Grant amplifies Ginsberg by stating “out of which [the vortex] American violence emanates.” What can one make of this? It is as strong a defense of Near Dark as I have seen, but Grant simply observes, after Ginsberg, that America is a violent place (news?) and that somehow Bigelow immerses us in it in Near Dark, but such a case could be made for any film about American violence, and Bigelow’s ambitions are so obscure – yet so palpably vicious – one can hardly say that she takes us beyond the insights (not to mention morality) of Peckinpah, Romero, and countless others.
One can simply forget about Bigelow, but her war films concerned with recent adventures of state power are so repugnant that the common view of her reputation, such as it is, needs to be stripped away, along with whatever loyalty is seen as owed to her for being – what? – an unusual player in the game?
In her introduction to a Bigelow interview in Artforum, Amy Taubin says that “Bigelow and Boal’s most brilliant choice was to end the movie [Zero Dark Thirty] with despair rather than triumph.” Exactly where is the “despair” (suggesting total anguish in the face of alienation and moral defeat) in the final scenes of this film? We see the woefully drab actor Jessica Chastain, as CIA planner Maya, aboard a military transport plane on her way home. Her face is shown in prolonged close-up, during which she sheds tears. Is she crying out of exhaustion? Out of the prolonged ordeal to kill bin Laden? Out of the burden of her office? Is there enough in this scene to allow us to extrapolate her utter “despair” over the murder – and the attendant bankruptcy of state policy? Maya’s characterization is so bewildering, that it causes one to question if she is capable of feeling or thinking anything at all. She is a technocrat, albeit one very often at the margins of the film (is she the central figure, as she is supposed to be?), although she is occasionally pushed forward, as in a particularly awkward scene where she announces to a group of CIA male hotshots that she is a “motherfucker.” Is this a way of impressing people? Whatever the purpose, the moment is one of the film’s many misconceived embarrassments.
Zero Dark Thirty is at this writing an Oscar contender – it seems unlikely (I could care less) that it will win the awards of her previous war film The Hurt Locker, whose central proposition is “will the bomb go off or won’t it?”, the politics of the morally bankrupt invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan nowhere to be seen, along with the people of these benighted nations except as they serve as threatening exotics opposing “our boys.”
There are at least two moral, legal, and political issues in Zero Dark Thirty: the use of torture by the US government against people seen as likely “terrorists,” and the assassination by US state power of Osama bin Laden. Of the first issue, interested people by now have been well-informed on official terror. Activists have appeared at some theaters showing Zero Dark Thirty, handing out pamphlets adumbrating the uses of torture by the CIA during both occupations. I’ll take for granted that all reading this essay see torture by anyone against anyone as savage activity, indicative of a civilization in decline; we’ll set aside whether or not this activity is “productive.” The film shows US thugs “waterboarding” a terror suspect (perhaps this form of torture has received disproportionate publicity, making people think that all the other methods in the CIA repertoire were not used – such as genital torture and sexual humiliation, explicitly in use in the Abu Ghraib photos). We should note that torture has been part of all the US postwar incursions, especially Vietnam. What differentiates the horrors of the Middle East invasions from those of the past is the state’s bold-faced legitimizing of torture, and its encouraging of the US population to do same.
The torture in Zero Dark Thirty is conducted by a sweaty American tough guy who transforms into a coat-and-tie CIA analyst. Bigelow clearly presents the torture as one step among many leading the US to bin Laden’s hideout. When confronted with the issue, she says she offers the scene as an image about which the public needs to make its own interpretation, as if her film is something like a Robert Rauschenberg painting. Perhaps we should see the film this way, but this would represent a turning point in American film history: state-sponsored torture and murder presented by an artist as an abstraction. Could one imagine Goya’s The Third of May 1808, Picasso’s Guernica, Guzman’s The Battle of Chile, or even Dali’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans: Premonition of Civil War offered as abstractions, devoid of any moral premise?
The other, more central issue in this film is, of course, the assassination of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs, an action fully sanctioned by the US power structure, including President Barack Obama, celebrated by many as a liberal. I want to say straight off that this is not a brief for bin Laden. I find his type of reactionary, oppressive religious ideology repugnant, as I do all doctrinaire religious systems. Bin Laden is no doubt guilty of many crimes. But the central crime for which he was pursued by the US government were the attacks on the US of September 11, 2001, known popularly by the apocalyptic numerals “9/11” (most haven’t noticed that this date has been appropriated; the “original” 9/11, a far more hellish one than the crimes of 2001 [not to underrate the suffering of that day] was the overthrow of the democratically-elected socialist government of Chile on September 11, 1973, in a US-backed coup that included the bombing of the presidential palace, the death of President Salvador Allende, and the torture and murder of many thousands in the decades of rule by fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet). But was bin Laden guilty? In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Taliban government offered to turn bin Laden over to a third country if the US could produce evidence of his involvement in the crimes, a not unreasonable offer. Much blood and treasure could have been saved, perhaps, if the offer was pursued. It wasn’t, as the Bush crowd decided to see the matter as reason for war rather than an international criminal investigation, at a time when the US enjoyed enormous international good will – which would soon dissolve.
Noam Chomsky remarks that eight months after 9/11, FBI Director Robert Mueller said he “believed” the attacks were planned in Afghanistan, the planners then perhaps moving to Germany. In a famous letter, FBI lawyer Coleen Rowley expressed her frustration about not being able to investigate possible terrorists before the fact of 9/11, sardonically saying “I know I shouldn’t be flippant about this, but jokes were actually made that the key FBI HQ personnel had to be spies or moles […] who were actually working for Osama bin Laden to have so undercut Minneapolis’s efforts [to investigate possible hijackers].” George W. Bush tried to obstruct all efforts to investigate 9/11, but political pressure resulted in the lackluster, compromised 9/11 Commission. The whys and wherefores of the 9/11 attacks are still a topic of public discourse. I have yet to read a magazine article or book that details the particulars of the attacks in a clear, detailed, well-argued, logical narrative. Many people, especially liberals it seems, debunk “conspiracy theories” and those who participate in the 9/11 Truth Movement (was Watergate not a conspiracy, not to mention a good deal of US “covert” foreign policy?), conflating “truthers” with “birthers,” the sectors of the racist right who do not believe that President Obama is a citizen of the United States. There is much nonsense that circulates within this Movement, but also authentic democratic impulses to be informed.
It may be decades, if ever, before we know the facts about the 9/11 attacks. It is a commonplace, however, that the attacks were used as a pretext for war in the Middle East and Central Asia. It is well known to those who have followed recent history that Osama bin Laden played a key role in leading the reactionary, US-backed Mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. For all practical purposes, bin Laden was a CIA contract agent, a fact that may have embarrassed US authority had bin Laden gone to trial and said his piece (the same might be said of Saddam Hussein, neatly disposed of without mention of his years as a US client). And here we have a crucial issue. There was never an attempt to bring bin Laden before the bar of justice. When he was shot and his body quickly disposed of, media accounts said he was “reaching for a weapon” when he was shot by SEALs. Questions immediately presented themselves. What kind of a “weapon”? A sword? A pistol? He reached for a weapon when the SEALs “had the drop” on him? Zero Dark Thirty shows a rifle on a wall. It became clear that bin Laden was simply assassinated. Very soon, all pretense of the SEALs acting in self-defense was dropped, as liberal comedians and commentators made light of the affair, enjoying President Obama’s boost in the polls, his moment in the sun for “taking down” this international criminal (which he no doubt was). In the 1970s the mood might have been a trifle different.
In the wake of the Vietnam horrors, seen as a huge defeat for US policy assumptions, along with the Watergate affair, which amounted to the Nixon government waging war on the Constitution and the political process, the Congress began a series of investigations. Indeed, the 70s were known to many as the Age of Investigation, with many activists thinking they could transform their political radicalism into collaboration with the state in the “open the files” activity of the decade, not realizing that what took place was a way for the state to save face amid a profound legitimation crisis.
The most significant investigation of the era – after the Watergate probes – was that of the first Senate Intelligence Committee, headed by Senator Frank Church, a cold warrior-turned-liberal. The Church Committee took on the CIA, FBI, and military intelligence, uncovering wiretapping plots, testing of LSD and biological weapons on civilians and military, and the assassinations of Patrice Lumumba, Rafael Trujillo, Che Guevara, and Salvador Allende, in which the CIA was “perhaps” involved, along with numerous assassination plots against Fidel Castro. The committee’s activities were the subject of headlines, with tongue-clucking on the part of the public, and accusations of treason from conservatives. The committee created a sub-committee, led by Senators Richard Schweiker and Gary Hart, to reopen the investigation of the John F. Kennedy assassination; this probe evolved into the compromised House Select Committee on Assassinations of 1976-79, which concluded that Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King were victims of “probable” conspiracies, although no conspirator was named.
The information produced by the investigations of the 70s caused anger, embarrassment, and distrust within the general public. Although the American public was taught to hate the figures that bit the dust in the 1950s and 60s (especially Commies like Che), many could not stomach – at least for the moment – the notion of official murder. State power was flustered, and began much finger-pointing that came to an end with the Reagan era’s “morning in America” patriotism, the rise of Rambo and his ilk in pop culture, and the gradual acclimation of the public to state-sponsored murder as Reagan began a new terror campaign in Central America – a major ambition of the Reagan period was not merely to erase the activism of the “turbulent” (the word still most used as descriptive adjective) 1960s, but to make the public applaud state violence. The movie Rambo: First Blood II (1986), which took our hero back to Vietnam, used the tagline “this time we win,” indicating both the amorality and fantasyland that was the 1980s.
The sentiments of Rambo have been in place ever since, never more so than in Zero Dark Thirty. State violence might be grim, but nothing to fret about – at least nothing beyond a few tears of exhausted pride. Who cares if the US has rolled back international agreements dating to the Magna Carta and the Habeas Corpus Act, guaranteeing that the accused person be brought before accusers and representatives of law? We now live in an age so morally bankrupt that violence is the currency of our moment, so we should take in stride all that flows from it, including the massacre of children. What better way of conditioning their peers for the future? Zero Dark Thirty fits within a film culture wherein every other movie poster features a man proudly brandishing a gun. The celebration of 007’s fiftieth year is very telling: why not offer laurels to the men with licenses to kill on behalf of our way of life?
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes frequently for Film International. He recommends to the reader, with a few reservations (Solti’s usual bombast), choral excerpts from St. Matthew Passion conducted by Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Decca CD. He also recommends the Rolling Stones’ retrospective on an era long in the past, the compilation Grrrr, as well as the release of their 1965 tour film Charley is My Darling, that reminds him of his youth, his hope for the future, his hunger for fun at every turn. They represent the defiance of all that he has written about above, and the affirmation of the libido and life over the depravity of the present. When they appeared in the early 60s, the nuns who were his high school teachers (the word is used for convenience) termed them “insolent.” At least they had a little perception.
Noam Chomsky (2011), 9/II: Was There an Alternative? New York: Seven Stories Press.
Barry Keith Grant (2011), Shadows of Doubt: Negotiations of Masculinity in American Genre Films, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, p. 182.
Hearing before the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate Ninety-Fourth Congress, First Session, Vols. 1-VI, Washington, DC. Government Printing Office, 1975.
Michael Parenti (2002), The Terrorism Trap: September 11 and Beyond, San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Amy Taubin (2013), “1000 Words: Kathryn Bigelow,” Artforum, January, p. 166.