Thursday, January 10, 2013
Zero Dark Thirty earned several nominations for an Academy Award this morning, including Best Picture of the year - adding to their haul of other nominations this awards season. The picture is a convergence of my interests, being a film buff who spent the bulk of my adult life living and working in Hollywood; and somebody who is passionate about politics. While the film has been open for several weeks in Los Angeles, it was just last weekend that it “went wide” to the bulk of the country and was my first opportunity to see it. The opening screen states that it’s “based on first hand accounts” and has been described by its makers as journalistic in nature. It’s not a documentary of the events leading to the death of Osama bin Laden, nor is it fictionalized. It’s not the best of anything - in fact it's the worst type of hybrid imaginable.
Critics and marketers hype the ‘ripped-from-the-headlines’ nature of the piece. Much of the political commentary has been on the 20 minutes or so of "torture" scenes. The film purports to be the accurate telling of how the U.S. chased, found, and killed Osama bin Laden. The story draws a definitive link between the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and finding the world’s most wanted man. The problem, of course, is that it’s not true.
The CIA itself has disavowed the link. Is this because the graphic nature of the information gathering is uncomfortable for the Agency? I doubt it. Various military agencies have supported plenty of films that celebrate the drama of getting information in different ways. Before the film came out there have been Congressional studies, first-hand accounts and a myriad of press stories with real reporting that chronicle the capture in a far different way than is serialized in the movie. The disparity between the preponderance of evidence of what happened and what’s in this two and a half hour film is gargantuan.
Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal have created a narrative that is designed to be a a good entertainment experience. Their work on “The Hurt Locker” was extraordinary – it’s a film I found quite compelling. By removing the license to adapt and shape a story - a barrier that gives Hollywood permission to tweak real events for a better story - the film must then stand up to a different and higher standard. I couldn’t appreciate "Zero" because when it’s represented as an honest portrayal and in nearly every instance isn’t...it became this absurd piece of propaganda the unfolded in front of my aghast eyes.
Beyond the torture issues, the protagonist is misrepresented as well. One female CIA operative did not drive the ‘greatest manhunt in history.’ It’s a convenient and contrived device that helps in storytelling. If the goal was to make a thriller based on real events, fine. But to claim it’s a journalistic representation of what actually happened is eggregiously false.
More people will see this film over time and accept its basic narrative as the truth than will actually research and learn what really happened. The harm that does is the further erosion of the line between fact and fiction in America’s politics. The 2012 election was a bonanza for fact-checking sites. The election was filled with each candidate’s misrepresentation of data to support their own agenda. At one point people could have their own opinions and not their own facts. That's no longer the case. This inevitable ‘slippery slope’ means that even the most outrageous actions – torture and murder – become indistinguishable from a space invaders popcorn flick.
(Spoiler alert!) The film ends with the female agent sitting in an empty cargo plane after having spent her entire career chasing OBL and just having looked in the body bag to confirm his identity. Extreme close up. A tear dramatically rolls down her cheek. The audience is left wondering whether it’s a tear of relief, of sadness or remorse. For me it was a tear for truth and justice. I wish the film would have zero impact, my fear is that will convince people of a version of history that didn’t happen.