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Zero Dark Thirty: Great Movie, Pity about the History

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Screen shot 2013-01-25 at 12.11.43 PM


Stephen Colbert may have offered the most pointed criticism to date of Kathryn Bigelow's 'Zero Dark Thirty' in his mock interview with the director earlier this week. He said to Bigelow:

"Americans don’t read books. And this depiction of the torture, the investigation, the catching of bin Laden, is going to be our record, just as surely as Jim Caviezel died for our sins."

While watching the film last night, I couldn't help but think of Colbert's statement - that this would be how Americans remembered the events leading up to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Because it is true - Americans are far more influenced by what they see than what they read, and 'historical' movies like 'Zero Dark Thirty' have the power to frame how people understand history. As Bigelow herself stated, "I would call this movie the first draft of history, the first rough cut."

And that is why the movie should be regarded as a piece of propaganda that should be dismissed by anyone serious about understanding the real history behind Bin Laden's execution.

The film itself was absolutely brilliant, a riveting thriller that kept you on the edge of your seat for the full 160 minutes. It was beautifully shot, subtly acted and given it was condensing 10 years of history into a couple of hours, astonishingly well edited. The movie follows the events through the eyes of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a real CIA officer who spent a decade relentlessly hunting Bin Laden, and was instrumental in pinning his location and implementing the Navy Seal led assassination. It is a no holds barred version of events with explicit torture scenes, lots of bombings and shootings, and a breathtaking rendition of the stealth helicopter/Navy Seal raid of Bin Laden's compound in Pakistan. Bigelow's portrayal of torture was difficult to sit through, and the interactions between CIA agents brutally raw and unflattering. The movie attempted to show events as they were, and you left with a very visceral sense of what it must have been like spending months in hostile territories following endless dead leads, torturing suspects, and getting shot at. I genuinely felt like I had spent time in one of the the black sites where suspected terrorists were subjected to water boarding, sleep deprivation and routine humiliation. It wasn't pleasant, and deliberately so.

However, given what the film didn't cover, it can only be accurately described as a completely uncritical narrative that presented America as the heroic force for good battling evil baddies in the Middle East. The film didn't explicitly condone torture, but it was shown to have worked in getting vital information on Bin Laden associate 'Abu Ahmed'. This may be accurate, but the other side of the story was never explored. The evidence remains that not only was it highly illegal, torture overwhelmingly led to faulty information. Bigelow can of course argue that is wasn't her responsibility to explore the debate as she was only telling a story, but given she has admitted the film acts as "the first draft of history", it doesn't wash. I have to admit, when I left the theater couldn't help but think that maybe torture was ok in certain circumstances - and I'm staunchly anti torture. Movies will do that to you. Just sit through a couple of episodes of '24' and you'll quickly side with Jack Bauer smashing people's knee caps and beating them to a pulp in order to get information. While the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty were hard to watch, you couldn't help but side with the torturers, who Bigelow went at great lengths to portray as sympathetic, nuanced characters. This deliberation was of course not extended to the suspected terrorists.

And while the film showed the enormous emotional frustration of Americans and CIA agents in their inability to find the perpetrators of 9/11, not once were the views of Arabs whose lives and countries had been decimated by US military action explored. Again, America was the victim, and Arabs the violent aggressors.

The day Bin Laden was assassinated I went down to the White House to watch the celebrations. Americans were dancing and cheering in the streets, over joyed that the man who had orchestrated the deaths of 3000 civilians had finally been taken out. I remember how uncomfortable I felt, knowing how brutal America has been in the Middle East for decades, and knowing how American victory laps would be seen in the countries it had invaded. There is no doubt that Osama Bin Laden was an evil man who needed capturing and killing, but what did that say about Bush and Obama - leaders who have now caused far more death than Bin Laden could ever have dreamt of? While Americans might like to view their country as a benevolent super power concerned with spreading democracy and prosperity, the truth is far darker and far more complicated.

'Zero Dark Thirty' is a homage to that naive and ultimately hypocritical version of events where Americans are a force for good, and Arabs relentlessly evil terrorists. As winners write the history books, and in America's case, the history movies, Kathryn Bigelow is now the leading authority on the events leading up to the capture of Bin Laden whether she likes it or not. And sadly, her version of events leaves out most of the actual history.