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Emmanuel Goldstein is Dead. Long Live Emmanuel Goldstein!

1984A Review of Zero Dark Thirty

Sometimes I think many of our most honored (not necessarily our best) filmmakers are under the direct employ of The Oceana Ministry of Truth. I have pointed out several examples of this in the past, most notably Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (War as a male bonding experience), Hurt Locker (American adrenalin is the only valid kind), even Avatar (having people hating the virtual military/industrial complex is so much safer than having them hating the real one). Now we have Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn (Hurt Locker) Bigelow. I had read so much pro and con about the film, I was curious to see if it is as outrageously inaccurate as some critics claim.

I would like to interrupt this review to bring you some important updates. Prior to release, director Bigelow and screenwriter Boal seemed reluctant to express their ideas about the film. Now that the negative criticism has coalesced and some have even called for a boycott of the Oscars for nominating Zero Dark Thirty, they have come out with interviews defending the film. Kathryn Bigelow has even suggested it is a matter of first amendment rights and freedom of artistic expression. She has characterized criticism of the torture sequences as squeamishness to the realities of the conflict. In the Guardian interview she stressed Boal’s reportage aspect of the screenplay. His research relied heavily on interviews with CIA operatives.

This is interesting considering her claim that the Defense Department did not “vet” the project. How is it then that such an unprecedented access to CIA personnel and some say classified information was allowed?  I know the CIA is not under the purview of Defense but I would consider it very strange if they did not talk to each other, especially regarding terrorism matters. Bigelow seems to think the objections to her film center mainly around the fact of her depiction of torture not the way she depicted it or to her falsely attributing torture as an essential and effective part of the intelligence gathering toolbox. “Depiction is not endorsement.” Her claim that she only attempted accurately and objectively to show all the ins and outs of the lead up to the capture bin Laden is clearly incorrect—need I say a lie? To see the film is to know it for what it is: a transparently jingoistic, pro-American piece of propaganda that tries to vindicate the absurd War on Terror, legitimize torture, murder, atrocity and illegality, and make war criminals into heroes. I don’t know whom director Bigelow is trying to fool with her interviews in which she describes herself as an apolitical pacifist—certainly no viewer of the film.

I realize I may be inadvertently encouraging people to swell the box office receipts for this fascistic update of Triumph of the Will. I would suggest that people wanting to see this film and make up their own mind do as I did. I bought a ticket to Lincoln at my local multiplex and then snuck into Zero Dark Thirty. That way I did not contribute to the proceeds of this War on Terror infomercial.

In the interest of full disclosure here I need to reveal a couple of personal biases concerning recent history.

First, until the American people receive a full accounting of all the events surrounding 9/11, I will continue to reject all political, emotional and moral use of this horrific event for patriotic, propaganda. In the same way the Holocaust has been used to browbeat critics of Israel and justify untold modern horrors in the name of Zionist imperialism, so the horrors of 9/11 have been used to serve our own imperial imperatives and countless numbers of our own atrocities including the creation of an American police state.

Second I believe the greatest single misuse of 9/11 has been the War on Terror. Some believe 9/11 to have been a modern Reichstag Fire (another Pearl Harbor) event to be used in pursuit of the Neocon/PNAC agenda of full-spectrum dominance abroad and the repeal of our rights at home. Whether Bush and his cronies were operationally involved in the attacks of 9/11 or not, they certainly have made full use of it to advance their brutal agenda.

Liberal blindness refuses to accept that this agenda, begun under Bush, has become far, far worse under Obama. It is startling to realize our government has no concern for the health and safety of the people it is supposed to serve. It is equally shocking to come to understand that the imperial “We” has created al-Qaeda (merely the latest manifestation of Emmanuel Goldstein) as a front for the aforementioned full-spectrum dominance of the world and its resources by Imperial America. Post 9/11 events have demonstrated, to my satisfaction at least, that the War on Terror has no validity and is merely a smokescreen for our government’s coalescing of its power. Insofar as terrorism is a treat to anyone, it exists solely as blowback against our own forms of terrorism. Osama bin-Laden was our own creation, our own Frankenstein’s monster.

A film that begins by dragging out a soundtrack replay of the horrors of that September day in 2001 is guaranteed to get off to a bad start with me. Fortunately we were not re-treated to the 9/11 visuals. Kathryn Bigelow it seems took a page from Michael Moore on this one. The 9/11 manipulations framed the moral underpinnings of Zero Dark Thirty. Of course the film treats us to a number of subsequent terrorist bombing events that reinforce the moral outrage of the CIA operatives. The film implies that if they do not do their jobs, including torture, we can expect even more of the same. Nowhere in the film is there even a whisper about blowback or how our War on Terror is creating the very problems organizations like the CIA are ostensibly sworn to prevent. To paraphrase Chicago’s own beloved King Richard the First, “The CIA is not there to create terrorism; the CIA is there to preserve terrorism.”

 I was most interested to watch the initial torture scenes that have inspired some of the major objections to the film. The torture scenes had a distinctly neutral moral cast.  Even activities such as the waterboarding of the detainee, were handled so routinely that I had to mentally keep reminding myself that I was witnessing war crimes. Maya, starkly played by Jessica Chastain, is initially repelled by the whole torture scene, its smell and the scruffy miscreant (who of course must be considered guilty and worthy of even this level of degradation). It is interesting to note that, for CIA agent, Maya, her repulsion at this initial torture scene has only a sensual or an aesthetic, not a moral, dimension for her.  When the detainee begs her to help him she simply responds by coldly telling him, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” She has absolutely no compassion for the detainee. Even more insight into her hard-as-nails character is revealed as we see her dispassionate face reviewing numberless torture videos attempting to assemble vital cross referenced Intel, logs of names, key words and phrases she can correlate in what one character observes is her obsessive pursuit of Moby Dick/ bin Laden.

“I mean, she is not defined by a man. She is not defined by a love interest, she is defined by her actions, and I think that is a character that is very inspiring and is beautifully, beautifully played by Jessica, so that was exciting to me. I will say that I was surprised and excited that it was a woman, but I was thrilled that it was a woman. And to find out that there were women who worked very, very hard as well, and it was a very wonderful screenplay, so I was very happy.”  - Kathryn Bigelow

This very modern female is portrayed only in a positive light. Here is, after all, a truly liberated woman able to knock heads with the big boys even responding to CIA head Panetta/Gandolfini’s question, “Who’s she?” with, “I’m the motherfucker that found that place (the bin-Laden compound).” I’m sure countless women, after viewing the film, will probably consider Maya as among the best the women’s liberation movement has produced and a positive, personal role model. I for one find this portrayal morally and spiritually repugnant.

The torture scene is rendered more palatable by the presence of an attractive even charismatic torturer, Dan, played by Jason Clarke. We see him committing such violence as beating, claustrophobic confinement and waterboarding in a calm almost compassionate manner as he mercifully repeats his mantra, “If you lie to me I will hurt you.” What is the poor torturer to do if his victim will not help him save innocent lives by giving up his evil sources? We see the horrific consequences of not torturing well enough or long enough when the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott Hotel takes place in spite of the CIA interrogators most arduously “enhanced” efforts.

This is by no means an amoral movie. Torture is not presented in a merely utilitarian way. Upon viewing the film I believe the director has done her best to portray torture as a distasteful but necessary even honorable part of conduct by the CIA and other security agencies. Of course it is a lie that it has any utilitarian value. It is interesting that even the movie admits that more useful information seems to have been gathered by a carrot rather than a stick approach—something the real grownups at the interrogation game have long known.

Contrary to some detractors of Zero dark Thirty, I had less of a problem with the “based on actual events” title at the beginning of the film. The only real misrepresentation of the actual events I saw in the film is the belief in torture. Many CIA operatives and the President himself still believe torture to be both moral and effective. The film is guilty more of a misinterpretation of facts than an inaccurate portrayal of history. By the end of the enhanced interrogation scenes I’m sure most viewers are rooting for the CIA torturers. This is the real evil the film does, not any historical inaccuracy.

In light of the admission by script writer Boal that the real breakthrough in identifying the bin Laden courier came, not from torture, but by a diligent data miner, I wonder why so much was made of the efficacy of torture in the script. I think the film would have been far more engaging had the torture scenes been cast in their real light, as actions by vengeful, inexperienced, frustrated interrogators. The labyrinthine pursuit of the bin Laden courier using shoe leather, perceptive data mining, radio surveillance, and paid informants was worthy of the kind of edge-of-the-seat drama we come to expect in a Clancy novel-based film. That and a certain measure of moral ambiguity might have made this a film worthy of Academy accolades instead of the growing deserved condemnation it now faces. Zero Dark Thirty is certainly otherwise well produced, engaging and even historically accurate as far as I could tell.

 There were three reasons why I think the film placed such an emphasis on torture.

First is the pornographic factor. The torture scenes do get the audience adrenalin pumping. It is a great way to grab us by the loins from the start. It says: this film promises to be salacious, gritty and not for weak or Liberal hearts—so sit back and enjoy! We are invited to revel in these excesses because we are told it is “necessary to save American lives.” It is justified violence—the best kind imaginable.

Second it represents our present government’s attempt to put a good face on our own continuing war crimes. An unintentionally funny scene has a video clip from President Obama eschewing torture while the CIA practitioners are still engaged in those very activities he is condemning. “You don’t want to be the last one caught holding the dog collar when this all comes down” one character advises—as if the President and the CIA are not still continuing to perform and brag about war crimes worse that Bush could have ever imagined. In order to rationalize drone strikes, continuing black sites, rendition, torture and other continuing atrocities by the CIA, it is necessary to render an accepting public compliant with the necessity of having the end always justifying any means necessary to achieve those ends. This is the real goal of the film.

Third, I think many people would like the hue and cry to investigate these illegalities begun under Bush and continued under Obama to be forever quashed. The film, vetted or not, pandered shamelessly to the government, the pentagon, CIA chief Panetta and assured their full support, assistance and cooperation. A film more critical of these miscreants would have had a considerably more difficult time being produced without this cooperation. BTW, I don’t believe for a moment Bigelow’s assertion that Defense did not “vet” the film. Where is Stanley (Dr. Strangelove) Kubrick now that we need him?

Just because the film is, as it claims, based on actual events doesn’t mean that these events portray the whole truth. Part of the real actionable intelligence program that attempted to locate bin-Laden came from a bogus inoculation program conducted by the CIA in which DNA samples were extracted from unsuspecting children to determine familial links to the inhabitant of the mysterious Abbattabad compound.

Some weeks ago I read of the assassination of nine UN Pakistani volunteer health care workers by the Taliban. The report dripped with moral outrage over the tragedy of the innocent volunteers (they used the word volunteer three times in the report) slain while only trying to help administer polio vaccine to Pakistani children. The violence was blamed on Islamic vaccination prohibition. (Such violent, backward, fanatical people!) What the report failed to mention was that in 2011 a similar (but bogus) Hepatitis B inoculation program had been launched to determine if the suspected location of the bin Laden compound could be verified by the presence there of his children. The depraved Pakistani Doctor who facilitated the CIA spy “inoculations” is presently in jail for his efforts. The film briefly alludes to these events but of course failed to mention that the duped children did not even receive the required number of shots to be effective!

The blood of those Polio vaccination workers is on the hands of the CIA operatives who a year earlier gave the phony inoculation shots to unsuspecting children. By now the historic quantity of CIA innocent blood spilled over the years must be enough to overload a fleet of oil tankers.

Quite aside of the film’s big lie that torture played a role in providing actionable intelligence leading up to the dispatching of bin Laden, I think we can say that the errors and lies that find correspondence in both the movie and the popular culture are:

Lie #1. The so-called War on Terror is not a thinly veiled ruse to mask our imperial ambitions abroad and deprive Americans of their Constitutionally guaranteed rights at home.

Lie #2. Bin Laden was the mastermind behind 9/11. (This of course was the biggest lie of the operation and presumably the film. Bin Laden had no operational role in 9/11. There is a segment in the film where the true mastermind of 9/11 is captured and waterboarded—Kalied Sheik Mohamed.)

Lie #3. The American people must now accept extralegal killing and torturing as a necessary means of conducting the business of state, at home and abroad.

Lie #4. Torture is an effective way to extract accurate intelligence information.

Lie #5. Killing bin Laden without a shred of an attempt at capture was not a cowardly and a dastardly act and fully acceptable under our new post-9/11 ethic. The popular consensus remains that his killing was always the goal of the Geronimo operation, and a laudable goal. (A trial was out of the question and would have posed highly embarrassing questions our government would prefer the American people rather not consider.)

Lie #6. The Geronimo action was not by every standard of international law a heinous operation by a rouge state that long ago abandoned even the pretense of legitimacy.

Lie #7. The American people, by almost universally celebrating this barbaric act, have somehow avoided placing themselves morally beneath even the Good Germans who approved the rape of Poland and supported The Final Solution.

A quote from George Orwell will provide an appropriate bookend to this review. He said "He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past." We have highly paid, applauded and awarded “artists” like Kathryn Bigelow to assure us with moving images, convincing effects and perfect accuracy a view of the past that is hopelessly misconstrued even if correct in its retelling of actual events.

Two addenda worth mentioning here that, while they are not dominant motifs of the film, still give us some further insight into the motives and the propagandistic manipulations of the screenwriter and the director.

The appearance of the SEALS in the concluding reel of the film bring the plot to its final unfolding in the preparation and execution of bin Laden. The SEALS fairly drip good-natured testosterone. Their aura is a perfect admixture of cowboys and rah-rah sports heroes. There is no suggestion of the criminality of the enterprise they are about to embark on. It is no accident that one of the SEALS when asked what he is listening to on his I-pad on the chopper flight to the target replies, “Tony Robbins. Hey I want to talk to you guys about this stuff after the mission is over.” This seeming bit of humorous irrelevancy struck me as actually significant. BTW, there are no irrelevant details in the work of a talented filmmaker and master propagandist like Bigelow. Robbins, the neuro-linguistic programming guru, is a human potential guide for hire to the highest bidder. He has taken contracts for the military to apparently make them more efficient, effective, self-fulfilled killers. Tony Robbins doesn’t seem too disturbed how his clients apply his teachings. I’ll bet he’d even have taken on bin-Laden as a client! Does director Bigelow identify? Perhaps she is even a Robbins devotee giving a not-so-subtle product placement for her guru. Devotee or not, Tony would be proud of her—and Maya.

And one final note on the casting. One of the unavoidable consequences of casting a particular actor to play a character is that the actor brings to the audience a whole set of prior expectations based on previous roles that actor has assumed.

The most amusing and ironic casting decision in Zero Dark Thirty was that of choosing James Gandolfini, best known for his portrayal of Tony Soprano: Roman Catholic, Italian-American and affable head of a violent, illegal crime organization, to portray CIA head Leon Panetta—a dead on casting match on all counts! Was anyone else puzzled over this strangely appropriate type-casting match?


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