Saturday, 22 December 2012

A zero from Kathryn Bigelow

Apparently, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a bad movie. On the contrary, the critics say it’s a very good movie.

Which makes it a very bad movie.

Glenn Greenwald opened the fireworks with a scathing non-review of the Kathryn Bigelow film in The Guardian over a week ago in which he said that the film provides a morally repugnant justification for torture. He was immediately twitted (and Twittered) for ‘reviewing’ a film he hadn’t seen, despite his explicit, upfront framing of the commentary as a criticism of the politics of the movie, not its aesthetic qualities.

As everyone will soon know, the film treats the search for and eventual assassination of Osama bin Laden and includes harrowing and lengthy scenes of torture performed on detainees by Americans and/or their agents. The torture is shoehorned into the film narrative as a necessary and useful procedure by which the U.S. obtained intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts and could finally kill him.

It is a key issue in the ensuing debate that this is completely false and that, in fact, no one argues as a point of historical fact that torturing bound and shackled detainees provided any useful intelligence in tracking down bin Laden, as even crusty old John McCain, to his credit, recently reiterated in a criticism of the film. Bigelow and her screenwriters have argued that, oh well hey, we needed a little narrative arc there, and it’s Just a Film after all! Not a documentary.

So now everyone and his transgendered brother has weighed in, and from what I can gather, the non-Greenwaldian responses fall into two camps:

-those who say it’s a great film, the ‘politics’ doesn’t matter, and you can’t judge a fictionalized treatment with the strict criteria of reportage (Not A Documentary); and

-those who say we can and should address the politics but given that the gruesomely detailed torture scenes show America in a bad light, the film forces us to recognize the ugliness of what we did; ergo, even though the history is falsified, we watch the film, rub our faces in our baseness and concede that as a nation we committed heinous and immoral acts. Which is good for us.

These two responses roughly correspond to the Republican-red and the Democrat-blue views of our recent history, which is exactly why Zero is such a morally bankrupt affair. No matter who got your vote last November, this film provides a vehicle for you to give the official torture regime a pass, either as a straight-up great idea or else as a necessary—albeit terrible—one.

That’s why the argument that the torture scenes are chilling and awful and thus provide a corrective to our recent sorry history is exactly backwards because they do the exact opposite: we can experience the horror and then absolve ourselves collectively by seeing the denouement in the punishment of the Evil One. Despite or rather because of our cathartic discomfort, we end up reviving our idea of ourselves as morally intact through the vehicle of suffer through the terrible (but necessary!) actions taken to restore our security.

Militarists and crude racists can and no doubt will simply cheer at the punishment meted out to the Islamic prisoners, but Bigelow provides a far more insidious and dangerous absolution for nervous liberals uneasy at the techniques applied. No wonder the Obama White House was so eager to cooperate with her team. The set-up makes Dick Cheney and by extension Obama look like realists and the Amnesty/ACLU/Human Rights Watch types a bunch of well-meaning naifs: the Dark Side is surely a frightening and terrible place, we conclude, but our protectors must travel there, like Orpheus descending into hell to rescue endangered Eurydice. Otherwise, they cannot protect us.

I must add that I am not in the least surprised given Bigelow’s last and equally reprehensible award-winning effort, The Hurt Locker. I may be one of the few viewers who walked out of it halfway. It contains perhaps the most despicable single scene produced in film since the U.S. invaded and destroyed Iraq under false pretenses and left the country in shambles.

Bigelow sets up her bomb-squad guys in that movie in an atmosphere of menace and danger. The Iraqis are portrayed to be not thrilled with their American conquerors though they are given no reasons for such attitudes. Then in early scenes an Iraqi child is introduced whose innocent ball-playing provides a moment of relief in the midst of constant death, threat and horror. But the kid is promptly blown up in a bomb factory, and the heroic G.I. protagonist gets to carry his lifeless body out through the wreckage.

Given the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis as a direct result of the U.S. takeover of their country, a filmmaker who head was not completely buried in the rectal compartments of the U.S. military might permit an actual citizen of that country to express the grief corresponding to one of their own children’s death. But Bigelow doesn’t give a shit about Iraqis or any damn foreigners—they’re just chum to be tossed in to provide dramatic background. Her films reveal the profound racism at the heart of the American imperial enterprise, which has changed little if at all since the Vietnam debacle of our youth, and we should expect nothing less than revisionist torture porn from her.

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