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Framing History

Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln and the Myth of Hollywood

by JON BAILES

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 establishment.

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