…doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on ‘normalization.’ This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as “the way things are done.” – Edward S. Herman
Do theaters tailor their previews of upcoming films to certain audiences? Prior to viewing Zero Dark Thirty in liberal Berkeley, I had to endure six such previews, every one of them an action thriller; a full twenty minutes of explosions, gun fire, car crashes and sexy women.
By now, you’ve already made your decision: not on the quality of ZDT as film, but on whether to see it or not, because you already know the plot. The issue is the question of torture and extra-judicial violence in general.
Many reviewers of ZDT have criticized the film for implying that torture led to Osama Bin Laden’s death. Few, however, have questioned whether we should applaud the action itself. How ironic that as I write these words, I hear that Chris Kyle, the celebrity author of American Sniper, subject of the film of the same title and ex-Navy Seal credited with 150 kills in Iraq (and who had criticized Barack Obama for being soft on the Second Amendment) was himself killed by another veteran – at a shooting range.
These are all mythic issues.
Some critics side with director Kathryn Bigelow, a self-proclaimed lifelong pacifist, who has stated that “…depiction is not endorsement.” We’ll see about that. She claims that she included the torture scenes because not to do so would have been to “whitewash history.” Glenn Kenny concurs: “…rather than endorsing the barbarity, the picture makes the viewer in a sense complicit with it…” Andrew Sullivan adds, “…the movie is not an apology for torture…It is an exposure of torture. It removes any doubt that war criminals ran this country for seven years.”
Even Michael Moore writes, “It will make you hate torture. And it will make you happy you voted for a man who stopped all that barbarity…” It’s a bit surprising, though, that Moore makes no comment about Barack Obama’s drones strikes that killed 176 Pakistani children in 2012. Nor does he acknowledge that this President claimed legal authority to murder American citizens abroad. And you lament the cruelty of his successor.
But here is the real problem I have with the film, aside from the fact that it ignores all of the political and most of the moral implications of the death – the murder – of Bin Laden and several other people. It has less to do with themes and more to do with images. As I wrote in Chapter Six of my book, Madness At the Gates of the City, The Myth of American Innocence,
This is war’s attraction – it allows men to enact their longing for initiation while serving a transpersonal cause. Thus, as long as we have uninitiated men we will have war. Jungian therapist Robert Moore (no relation to Michael) writes, ‘There is no way to understand the attractiveness of war without understanding the unconscious seduction of the archetype of initiation.’
The rational parts of our minds recoil at the thought of war, but young men react mainly to images. This is why the film director Francois Truffaut is reported to have said that it is impossible to make a truly anti-war movie, because “to show something is to ennoble it.” Even if films show war’s horrors and absurdities, their images go to the oldest parts of the brain and beyond: to the drive for initiation.
This at least is clear: it is impossible to make an American anti-war film, because our heroic mythology simply doesn’t allow for the possibility of defeat. Bigelow certainly couldn’t have made this film much earlier, when the search for Bin Laden was still going on.
And this is clear: the U.S. military has had near-veto power over Hollywood war films since the 1940s. Mathew Alford summaries a study:
…between 1911 and 2017, more than 800 feature films received support from the …Department of Defense…On television, we found over 1,100 titles received Pentagon backing – 900 of them since 2005, from Flight 93 to Ice Road Truckers to Army Wives. …When we include individual episodes for long running shows like 24, Homeland, and NCIS, as well as the influence of other major organizations like the FBI and White House, we can establish unequivocally for the first time that the national security state has supported thousands of hours of entertainment…the CIA has assisted in 60 film and television shows since its formation in 1947.
That last number is so low simply because:
The CIA put considerable effort into dissuading representations of its very existence throughout the 1940s and 1950s. This meant it was entirely absent from cinematic and televisual culture until…1959
Tom Secker and Matthew Alford, co-authors of National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood, write:
…U.S. government involvement also includes script rewrites on some of the biggest and most popular films, including James Bond, the Transformers franchise, and movies from the Marvel and DC cinematic universes….A similar influence is exerted over military-supported TV, which ranges from Hawaii Five-O to America’s Got Talent, Oprah and Jay Leno to Cupcake Wars, along with numerous documentaries by PBS, the History Channel and the BBC…dozens of films and TV shows have been supported and influenced by the CIA, including the James Bond adventure Thunderball, the Tom Clancy thriller Patriot Games and more recent films, including Meet the Parents and Salt.
This much is also clear: ZDT is a classic example of how Hollywood has always needed the aid, if not the outright permission, of the military (in this case, the “intelligence community”) to make its war movies, and of how that aid and permission inevitably flow seamlessly with the myth-making intentions, conscious or otherwise, of the filmmakers. In 2011, writer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker), an acquaintance of CIA Director Leon Panetta, was working on the script for a movie called Tora Bora, about the CIA’s failure to capture bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, when the killing occurred. Jason Leopold and Ky Henderson write:
Instead, he stopped writing the script for Tora Bora and began writing a different screenplay …That movie, which Boal would work on with director Kathryn Bigelow, would become the 2012 Oscar-winning film Zero Dark Thirty. And the CIA would play a huge role in the creation of the script…how they got agency officers and officials to review and critique the ZDT script…the CIA’s working relationship with the filmmakers began in 2010, a year before bin Laden was killed.
“Ever since its inception in 1947, the CIA has been covertly working with Hollywood,” writes Nicholas Schou:
But it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the agency formally hired an entertainment industry liaison and began openly courting favorable treatment in films and television. During the Clinton presidency, the CIA took its Hollywood strategy to a new level—trying to take more control of its own mythmaking. In 1996, the CIA hired one of its veteran clandestine officers, Chase Brandon, to work directly with Hollywood studios and production companies to upgrade its image. “We’ve always been portrayed erroneously as evil and Machiavellian,” Brandon later told The Guardian. “It took us a long time to support projects that portray us in the light we want to be seen in.”
The flag-waving Tom Clancy franchise became a centerpiece of CIA propaganda in the 1990s, with a succession of actors (Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and finally Ben Affleck) starring in films like Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and The Sum of All Fears, which pit the daring agent Jack Ryan against an array of enemies…The long relationship between Affleck, a prominent Hollywood liberal, and Langley seems particularly perplexing. But the mutual admiration has paid off handsomely for all concerned. According to The Guardian, during the production of The Sum of all Fears, the 2002 Clancy thriller starring Affleck, “the agency was happy to bring its makers to Langley for a personal tour of headquarters, and to offer [the star] access to agency analysts. When filming began, [CIA liaison] Brandon was on set to advise.”…also a frequent presence on the set of Alias, the TV espionage series starring Affleck’s then-wife, Jennifer Garner.
As Hollywood became increasingly embedded with Langley following 9/11, CIA employees often saw their public-affairs colleagues giving various celebrities personalized tours of the headquarters. “I can’t tell you how many times this happened,” recalled the former CIA officer John Kiriakou. He would regularly bump into a parade of Hollywood types, including Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck. He often wondered why these actors were allowed to walk around a top-secret facility. “Because he’s going to be playing a CIA guy in a movie? That’s the criteria now?
You can read Part Two of this essay here.