THE BLOG
01/02/2013 06:35 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2013

Dirty Harriet

I sprang for $14 and saw Zero Dark Thirty in Times Square. Just to see if the criticisms -- Glenn Greenwald's leading the way -- squared with it.

They do. Zero Dark Thirty is indeed propaganda as hopped-up quasi-doc, an exercise in embedded filmmaking. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld -- not to mention John "Cool as long as no organ failure" Yoo -- should claim story credits.

Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have made the incredible assertion that they were intent on just telling a story -- politics aside. As if this in itself weren't a political stance and a position with moral import. The film tries to construct a moral field that extends only to whether anyone has the relentless drive and balls to get bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty shows (shows off?) torture as a tool of CIA interrogation -- ugly, brutal as hell, revolting as shit, but part of our interrogator's kit for his nasty, necessary work.

There is no indication anywhere that torture is a war crime. There is no indication it was a change in American policy (though there's one brief heads-up, one agent to another, that the "politics" -- always that word! -- is shifting; toward disapproval by that point, one assumes, though it's not spelled out). There is no indication there was resistance to torture inside the CIA and in other departments.

All this is on display in the midst of actual unresolved war-crime issues involving not just Bush administration but its protector after the fact, the Obama administration, which is doing all it can to bury the whole thing.

The film also falsely suggests, despite its avowed basis in reality, that torture directly or indirectly produced information leading to the eventual apprehension -- make that execution ("Kill bin Laden!" cries our self-described "motherfucker" heroine Jessica Chastain) -- of the head of Al Qaeda. In reality torture produced nothing. It never does.

Actually it does. It produces catastrophic hatred. Sayyid Qutb, the main 'philosopher' of jihadist principles guiding Al-Qaeda, was tortured in Nasser's Egyptian prisons. He went in a radical and emerged bent with unquenchable hate.

Guantanamo, by the way, gets a fleeting mention in Zero Dark Thirty. Someone says that once detainees get there they become useless as sources because they get all "lawyered-up." Heck, they might even reach out to Walmart employees and form a union.

Leni Riefenstahl's name is getting bandied about. She is either cited as an example of an artist being great even if her work was morally tainted -- the hardcore art position. Or Bigelow is held up in contrast to her, because Bigelow insists she is not "pro-torture" and had no intent on a pro-torture film. Disavowal, of course, was Riefenstahl's way too: she ever insisted she only was interested in filmmaking; and she never was a member of the Nazi Party.

But what's more: if we acknowledge Riefenstahl's filmic greatness (deservedly) we are always aware of its taint, of the evil it served. So if we want to salute Bigelow's filmmaking, should we not add that she's morally tainted as well?

Except I don't understand the fuss about Bigelow's filmmaking, which is all about You-Are-There. The assault on Bin Laden at the end is pretty bravura, filmed at night. But honestly, plug in the right music and it's a big-budget recruitment ad heavy on the night-vision 'live- feed' optics. You are there, being all you can be, as the slogan goes.

I didn't see The Hurt Locker. But I was disgusted by the Oscar-acceptance speech of Boal, who saluted American soldiers and suffering, and made no mention at all of, you know, the Iraqis, whose country we illegally and catastrophically invaded. That after all was the occasion for the movie, and its context.

Bigelow's very first film, in 1978, was a 20 minute short called The Set-Up. Two guys beat the crap out of each other (one being Gary Busey), while the soundtrack ran commentary on the violence by a couple of hip, actual semioticians (Bigelow of course came up through the semiotics-heavy wing of the New York art scene). In 2009 Bigelow said this about The Set-Up :

The piece ends with Sylvère (Sylvère Lotringer, one of the semioticians) talking about the fact that in the 1960s you think of the enemy as outside yourself, in other words, a police officer, the government, the system, but that's not really the case at all, fascism is very insidious, we reproduce it all the time.

Well said. It might have served as an epigraph for her latest film.

As the credits rolled at Times Square, the audience broke into applause. Not all of them but a healthy portion. Applauding what precisely, I wonder?

I mentioned Glenn Greenwald as a leading critic of Zero Dark Thirty. Personally I'm partial to Michael Wolff's sulphurous screed. It gets the tone of disgust and contempt just about right. Not to mention Wolff's dark assessment about what Bigelow is after in her films.

I wonder what a Bigelow-Boal take on the Israeli invasion of Gaza would look like. From the Israeli perspective. All 'politics' aside, of course. In this crushingly political age.

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