10 January 2013

Thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty

I went to a screening of Zero Dark Thirty last night and was surprised by the presentation. There is nothing about this film that one would expect out of a hunt for bin Laden movie. There are no montages of SEALs training over-laced with an Aerosmith song. Nor do the SEALs high-five each other after killing bin Laden. The CIA intelligence officers are largely portrayed as desk jockies sifting thought reams of documents rather than becoming involved in epic car chases. What's wrong with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal? Didn't the focus groups tell them that to be commercially successful you've got to glam up the story some?

If the focus groups did give Zero Dark Thirty's director and screenwriter that advice, I'm glad they didn't listen. The portrayal of the hunt for bin Laden is a slow and ponderous affair that imparts tone of the decade long operation. The characters in the film are not the epic heroes that legends come from. They are simply performing a duty outlined by the desires of the American people to spill Osama bin Laden's blood to avenge the horrors of September 11, 2001. Without the kick ass feel of Hollywood's standard offerings, one gets a chance to examine the implications of the "War on Terror". From the audience's reaction to the film, I would say the filmmakers hit their mark. There were no applause at the end or when bin Laden was killed. No Hillary Clinton fist pumps or cat calls of "Yea we got him" were to be seen or heard.

That is also as it should be. No matter how one feels about the role of bin Laden in the September 11th attacks, the fact remains that the American people called for his head on a pike. To that end we allowed prisoners to be tortured for information and violated the sovereignty of  Pakistan to achieve that end. Imagine what the reaction would be if the Canadians illegally flew 24 servicemen into Minnesota for the purpose of bringing a serial killer to the Pearly Gates. As much as we would like to think asymmetrical warfare is as clear cut a proposition as notions about the Second World War were, they're not. Enemies that do not "play by the rules" create problems with a nation who truly wants to pride itself on proportional and moral actions in warfare. The dourness of Zero Dark Thirty allows viewers to focus on the Rubicon we've crossed as a nation and if the price for vengeance was/is worth it.

To be honest, I'm still not sure about the answers to those questions. Am I grateful to the men and women who have shielded me from harm since September 11th? Yes. Am I deluded enough to believe that my personal safety doesn't come with unpleasant consequences for those that would do harm? No. The largest problem I have with any of the subsequent events to September 11th is that I do not have enough solid information to justify the wetwork that's been done in my name as an American citizen. While I do not believe in the grand conspiracy theories about September 11th being an "inside job", I do feel that the truth about the attacks has never been fully presented to the American people. Without that assurance, I can never fully sanction the death sentence we have passed on bin Laden. Conversely if someone had showed me evidence of Nazi Concentration Camps in 1939, I would have clamored for the same death sentence to be passed on Hitler. The lack of trust I have in what I'm being told gives me pause to question our national motives in the War on Terror.

That brings up another point about Zero Dark Thirty that marks this film as a must see. The film will cements the official narrative of the hunt and death of Osama bin Laden in our collective history. I have no real means of verifying that the account portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty is anything close to historically accurate. The narrative of the operation against bin Laden could be a Liberty Bell story that fits neatly into our history, but only faintly echoes the truth of the situation. As Americans we don't seem to correct the mistakes of our own historical accounts. If we did, we would recount the Battle of Breed's Hill and not the fallacy that lion's share of the action took place on Bunker Hill. The example might seem to be minor, but follows with the line of thought. Abigail Adams had misidentified the battle on June 17, 1775, as being on Bunker Hill in a letter to her husband John. In turn John referred to the conflict happening at Bunker Hill to the Continental Congress and the narrative was set in American history incorrectly placed.

While Abigail Adams had no malice in her mistake, do we trust that those shaping the story of bin Laden do not have their own agenda? I hope not, but I cannot being myself to making that leap of faith just yet...

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