Do theaters tailor their previews of upcoming films to certain audiences? As I wrote in my last blog, prior to viewing Zero Dark Thirty, I had to sit through six such previews, every one of them an action thriller; a full twenty minutes of explosions, gun fire, car crashes and sexy women.
By now, you’ve already made your decision: not on the quality of ZDT as film, but on whether to see it or not, because you already know the plot (If you care to read reviews, Netflix lists 170 of them). The issue is the question of torture and extra-judicial violence in general.
Many reviewers of ZDT, and several politicians, have criticized the film for implying that torture led to Osama Bin Laden’s death. Few, however, have questioned whether we should applaud the action itself. How ironic that as I write these words, news comes in that Chris Kyle, the celebrity author and ex-Navy Seal credited with 150 kills in Iraq (and who had criticized the President for being soft on the Second Amendment) was himself killed by another veteran – at a shooting range.
These are all mythic issues.
Some critics side with director Kathryn Bigelow, a self-proclaimed lifelong pacifist, who has stated that “…depiction is not endorsement.” She claims that she included the torture scenes because not to would have been to "whitewash history." Glenn Kenny concurs: "…rather than endorsing the barbarity, the picture makes the viewer in a sense complicit with it…” Andrew Sullivan adds, "…the movie is not an apology for torture…It is an exposure of torture. It removes any doubt that war criminals ran this country for seven years." Even Michael Moore writes, “It will make you hate torture. And it will make you happy you voted for a man who stopped all that barbarity…” (all quotes from the Wikipedia article). No comment from MM that Obama’s drones strikes killed 176 Pakistani children in 2012, nor that the President has claimed legal authority to murder American citizens abroad).
But here is the real problem I have with the film, aside from the fact that it ignores all of the political and most of the moral implications of the death – the murder – of Bin Laden and several other people. It has less to do with rational themes and more to do with images. As I wrote in my book:
“This is war’s attraction – it allows men to enact their longing for initiation while serving a transpersonal cause. Thus, as long as we have uninitiated men we will have war. Jungian therapist Robert Moore (no relation to Michael) writes, ‘There is no way to understand the attractiveness of war without understanding the unconscious seduction of the archetype of initiation.’
Rational minds recoil at the thought of war, but young men react mainly to images. This is why the film director Francois Truffault…said that it is impossible to make a truly anti-war movie. Even if films show war’s horrors and absurdities, the images go to the oldest parts of the brain and beyond: to the drive for initiation.”
This at least is clear: it is impossible to make an American anti-war film, because our heroic mythology simply doesn’t allow for the possibility of defeat. Can you imagine Bigelow making this film in 2010, at which point the search for Bin Laden remained an absolute failure?
Some filmmakers grounded in older cultures that understand tragedy and loss were able to counter the seductive pull of the image and create masterpieces such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which is still available on Netflix. But such films remain quite rare among the thousands of war movies made in the past century.
In other words, depiction almost always is endorsement, and no one should understand that concept more clearly than a highly intelligent director such as Bigelow.
And there certainly are other issues that she glossed over (or deliberately framed). Every single CIA agent in ZDT is presented as idealistic rather than cynical, reluctantly violent rather than sadistic. The film also portrays both the spooks and the Navy SEALs as young, hip (lots of beards), diverse (several black and women agents) – and drop-dead gorgeous. They encounter breathtaking adventures as often as tedious deskwork. In other words, it makes a career in the CIA look very attractive.
From the perspective of image, it is hard not to conclude that ZDT is essentially a CIA recruitment film. And because these heroes and heroines are perfectly willing to break the law (at least as most of the world outside of Washington and Hollywood interpret it), firstly by torturing suspected terrorists and secondly by invading the airspace, property and quite a few lives of a sovereign ally (Pakistan), they embody our mythic American hero. As I wrote in my last blog: Here is a big secret: this hero has as much contempt for democracy as does his opponent. Can you imagine Rambo – or Barack Obama – waiting for congressional approval?
Journalist Matt Taibbi gets to the core: "The real problem is what this movie says about us. When those Abu Ghraib pictures came out years ago, at least half of America was horrified. The national consensus (albeit by a frighteningly slim margin) was that this wasn't who we, as a people, wanted to be. But now, four years later, Zero Dark Thirty comes out, and it seems that that we've become so blunted to the horror of what we did and/or are doing at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and Bagram and other places that we can accept it, provided we get a boffo movie out of it."
That’s why the theater managers showed all those action previews. They knew very well what kind of people were coming to see ZDT. They weren’t students of politics or history, but members of that high-rolling demographic of young, uninitiated males. Maybe not CIA material (they’d be at the university film showings), but potential cannon fodder for the next war. And how could Kathryn Bigelow not know that?