“A rose is a rose is a rose.” So is an action flic, but Zero Dark 30, the film about the hunt for, and capture of, Osama Bin Laden, has raised hackles throughout the entire political spectrum. As if a rose is not a rose. A friend sent me a review by Rabbi Brant Rosen (http://rabbibrant.com/2013/01/21/zero-dark-thirty-my-shalom-rav-review/), which covers most of the criticisms aimed at Z D 30, so I’ll use as a foil to write about the film and its controversies.
According to the rabbi, the movie opening with the words, “Based on firsthand accounts of actual events,“ means it’s “insidious” not to be historically accurate. Sorry, I think “based on” signals the viewer that what we are seeing is not a documentary but rather a fictionalized account of a true story. Countless films, books, and plays use “based on” as a jump-off and rarely get blasted. So why is this night…?
In his post Rabbi Rosen continues: “From an artistic point of view, I can say without hesitation that I was riveted by ZDT from beginning to end. Kathryn Bigelow is clearly one of our most talented American directors, particularly in her ability to construct a film with a palpable sense of documentary realism. In so many ways she, along with screenwriter Mark Boal, and her entire filmmaking team had me in the palm of their collective hand.
Which is why I also found ZDT to be a morally reprehensible piece of cinematic propaganda.”
Perhaps Rosen feels that the movie’s ability to blur fact and fiction worked too well, but that ultimately should be a compliment, not a criticism.
Rosen complains that the use of 911 call recordings from the September 11th attacks was purely manipulative. Since the movie is about the hunt for Bin Laden it should have begun with the chase. Problem is, Rosen didn’t write the screenplay. The screenwriter, Mark Boal, chose to frame the context with the reason for the hunt and, while the voices from that day are chilling, his decision was dramatically sound. When you think about it, films, books, art, and entertainment are inherently manipulative. Even those that purport to be objective—including journalism.
Rosen then moves to the issue of concern to many, including government officials: Z D 30 glorifies the use of torture by graphically showing it and suggesting torture yielded important information. Of course there was torture. It was well known government policy, euphemistically “enhanced interrogation techniques.” But glorification, or even endorsement? Frankly, I think those scenes are Rorschach tests that tell as much about the viewer as anything else. In reality, the movie makes it quite clear that the essential clues in finding Bin Laden came from painstaking detective work and not torture—a fact often overlooked by those who complain about “glorification.”
I saw the film’s take on torture as a pretty accurate picture of reality. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Also, as Michael Moore pointed out in an interview, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/25/michael-moore-zero-dark-thirty-torture_n_2552123.html) the real question about torture isn’t whether it “works” or doesn’t. Torture is a moral question and, in his opinion (mine as well), it is wrong. Z D 30 neither condemned or glorified. It showed. Perhaps the rabbi might have felt better if the movie began after President Obama outlawed the use of torture just as he wanted it to begin after the attacks?
Rabbi Rosen formulates, “Beyond this issue (torture), ZDT is dangerous for an even more essential reason. As Peter Haas pointed out in a recent piece for the Atlantic (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/12/dont-trust-zero-dark-thirty/266253/) it represents a new genre of “entertainment” he calls “embedded filmmaking.”
Near as I can tell embedded filmmaking seems to mean that Bigelow and Boal had “special” access to government information that raised concerns, including some by senators, that the Obama administration had granted that access for political reasons. According to the Inside Movies’ writer Anthony Breznican (http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/08/28/zero-dark-thirty-documents/) this simply isn’t true–though a CIA official did spend forty minutes with the two. In fact, careful perusal of related documents shows no indication that anyone in the administration helped shape the movie, despite that forty minute meeting.
But more importantly, even if “special” access were true, so what? Does the rabbi remember Woodward and Bernstein? Would he have called them embedded journalists because of their connection to Deep Throat?
I’m no fan of the relatively recent phenomena of wartime embedded reporters. In fact, I despise it. But that doesn’t mean I think every story to come out of Iraq and Afghanistan was simply government sponsored propaganda. And I don’t think Z D 30 is either.
Finally, Rabbi Rosen points out that “The CIA and the U.S. government are the Good Guys, the innocent targets of terrorist violence, the courageous warriors seeking justice for the 9/11 victims. Muslims and Arabs are the dastardly villains, attacking and killing without motive…Almost all Hollywood action films end with the good guys vanquishing the big, bad, villain—so that the audience can leave feeling good about the world and themselves—and this is exactly the script to which this film follows.”
Duh. If Z D 30 does what virtually every action film does, what’s Rosen’s point? Why pick Z D 30 to complain about? On top of which, no one I know who has seen the film recounts walking out feeling “good about the world and themselves.” And, as far as portraying Arabs and Muslims as bad guys, what films about Dessert Storm, Afghanistan, or Iraq hasn’t? From the moment cowboy pictures hit the screen, it’s been us against them. A huge aspect of our culture has been based upon that idea.
Truth is, I believe the firestorm about this movie is over the top. Over the top political correctness from progressives and over the top from those on the right who holler about Obama propaganda.
I left feeling I’d just watched one hell of a thriller. Two and a half hours flew by without one butt squirm. The story was well framed, the characters well drawn. Jessica Chastain was amazing and believable in her role as Maya the obsessive agent who is unable to let go of her hunt for Bin Laden. Indeed, the last scene shows Maya alone in an H-130 aircraft and, when asked where she wants to go, the tears begin to flow. Her twelve year obsession resolved, she doesn’t have anywhere to go. But I also left the theater grappling with the issues the rabbi raised regarding torture, our government policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sense—or lack thereof—about spending the time, money, and people power to track down and assassinate one individual. Issues raised, but not simply answered, by a film based upon a true story.
Zero Dark Thirty grabbed me, held me, and made me think. You really can’t ask much more from any movie.
“A book is a mirror; if an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.” ~G.C. Lichtenberg