Cultural Commentator

Reality Check: ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ ‘Argo,’ and Meta-America

Cultural Commentator

Reality Check: ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ ‘Argo,’ and Meta-America


People say movies are escapist, just entertainment, but I think that’s only an alibi, a way of hiding from ourselves just how effective what we do actually is. When something is in a movie, and especially when something is in a particularly successful film, its language, its grammar, is added into the grammar of possible reality. The banal fact that sharks are terrifying was cemented into our cultural imagination after Jaws. We have no idea how much power we have and absolutely no idea how to use it. It’s like we invent peoples dreams.
—Jacob Wren, from Polyamorous Love Song, a novel in progress.

The liberal anxiety over Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of torture as maybe(?) a necessary, or at least fruitful, means in “the war against terror” and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden reminds me of old media claims that video games incite violence. Protesters—there are protesters—are concerned that Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s movie legitimizes torture by, falsely and for narrative’s sake, linking the discovery of Bin Laden to information gathered through “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The criticism is valid and should be amended to the film forever but the loudest go-about is all wrong; it proposes that theater-goers can’t differentiate between reality and fiction, that Bigelow miscast history and we are dupes to her craftwork, like teens who play shoot-em-ups and then go and shoot something real up.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with the black screen and white text claim that the film you’re about to watch is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” The vérité is cemented by a mashup of actual 9-1-1 calls from 9/11 which sound until the first filmed image appears. What’s novel about such meta-techniques is that they aren’t novel anymore. This year, a majority of movies engaged in similar screen/reality slippages: Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and the founding of Scientology; Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, in addition to being an allegory on American recession economics, was based on the real life stripper story of its star, Channing Tatum; Ben Affleck’s Argo is a dramatization of the CIA rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis; Django Unchained is Tarantino’s revisionist revenge fantasy of antebellum America; Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, is 150 minutes of the legend, the myth, the man; Beasts of the Southern Wild is a magical realist take on Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans folklore; The Impossible whitewashes the true story of 2004 tsunami victims María Belón (played by Naomi Watts) and her husband Enrique (Ewan McGregor); Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises occupies Wall Street and blows up the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges; This Is 40, starring his RL wife and daughters, could be called This is Judd Apatow’s Privileged White American Midlife; Craig Zobel’s Compliance expounds on an actual, though obscure, American newsclipping; on made for tv, Julianne Moore played Sarah Palin watching Tina Fey play Sarah Palin in Game Change; horror wonder Cabin in the Woods was meta-thematic. Then there were the meta-for-meta’s sake movies like Holy Motors and Tabu.

Given this contemporary “reality” infused screenscape, how come Zero Dark Thirty is the only film inciting debates over verisimilitude, the power of the cinema, and the social/journalistic responsibility of the artist? And, more importantly, why are we attacking this movie and this filmmaker instead of the issues it represents?

Obviously, the main reason critics are so upset, over Zero Dark Thirty and not over the equally iffy American histories in Django or Argo, is because Bigelow is dealing with contemporary events. She has made a movie about something we haven’t seen in cinema yet, something we’ve seen very little of in any form of visual culture, something we are still “working through.” Bigelow is visualizing these events for the first time and that is powerful—she is giving us an indelible picture of recent history, which, like Jaws and sharks (see epigraph), could change the way we imagine Osama Bin Laden and the war on terror and torture for a long time.

Bigelow also gives us no anchor. Within the film, she does not condemn nor salute torture, she represents something of what we (not just she) gathered happened. Without a moralizing soundtrack or empathetic protagonist, Bigelow makes the viewer a viewer: we watch with no sense of agency or control and so feel sick and complicit and then dizzy in questions. (Gender is also at play in the focus on Bigelow: a feminine expectation of personal investment and explain yourself woman but that’s a whole other essay.)

Until very recently, Bigelow was mum on the torture topic. But two days ago, in the LA Times, Bigelow responded:

I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind… As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.

This is what early critics wanted to hear, wanted in the movie. The most important part of her letter, and best response to the critics, though, is this:

…I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen

Imagine if all of the ink on the page, the type on the screen, and paint on the signs dedicated to the protest of Bigelow and her movie targeted instead the CIA, the White House, and our, the American people’s, complicity in overseas actions.

I think the anxiety that so many critics expressed (most of it voiced, by the way, when the film was still only playing in the more liberal centers of New York and Los Angeles) has to do with Americans’ distrust in one another. Liberal critics are concerned that the rest of America, those who might already believe in “the terrorists” and the legitimacy of torture in war, will read Zero Dark Thirty the way they want to read it. Zero Dark Thirty, to Bigelow’s credit (and I really think this movie is brilliant), didn’t make the hunt for Osama Bin Laden about an “us” (U.S.) and a “them.” Instead, it brought the conflict back home, because all I saw afterward, in the media hubbub and controversy, was how America didn’t know how to deal with itself. It’s easier to attack Zero Dark Thirty than to even try and start to grapple with the bifurcated reality of American politics and culture. To focus on Bigelow and the movie is deflecting, like the “guns don’t kill people…” excuse, but instead we are going “America didn’t torture people, Kathryn Bigelow tortured people.” Zero Dark Thirty ends with a question: Where do you want to go? And that is what we should be interrogating.

So there’s a thesis and some more noise on the already deafening aura of Zero Dark Thirty. But that’s not all. I want to appeal that, if we are (and we are) going to deconstruct films for their problematics, for what they mean to and about American viewers, we should turn our attention from Zero Dark Thirty to Argo.

Ben Affleck’s Argo has slipped by the critics line for being set over thirty years ago, but we mustn’t forget that movies made about the past are always just as much about the present. Argo, which just won Best Drama and Best Director at the Golden Globes, is the “true” story of how C.I.A. operative Tony Mendez (played by Affleck) used a fake sci-fi movie as cover for the rescue of six American diplomats trapped in Tehran during the 1970s hostage crisis. This is a movie about America being saved by a movie. “It’s gonna be a spectacle,” someone says at one point and that’s what Argo is: a piece of spectacular American propaganda. America’s relationship with Iran is a contemporary political issue and Argo’s framing of Iran perpetuates the worst stereotypes of the Other: Iranians aren’t subtitled at key moments, exaggerating their image as incomprehensible, anti-American savages. Archival news footage of the 1979 hostage situation is cut between scenes starring Affleck’s beard, offering verisimilitude with no reflexivity. Unlike Zero Dark Thirty, a manhunt with no payoff, Argo ropes you into cheering for the save. The conclusion is all soaring music and pats on the back: hurrah for alcohol, hurrah for Central Intelligence, hurrah for American filmmaking! So let’s give pacifist Bigelow some peace and sensationalist Affleck some sensation. I want to see this Best Drama’s punchline turned back on itself: Argo Fuck Yourself.