Motion pictures have been platforms for historical and political discussion since George Méliès’s The Dreyfus Affair (1899). Perhaps such films should be even more frequent given the obvious alternatives: super hero movies, romantic comedies, and artistic studies of senseless violence. They prod our historical memory; they foster an exchange of insights and opinions, forcing us to move beyond the films themselves and think. Such films can help to generate a public culture in which actual issues are debated.
Part of such an engagement should be to recognize that pictures such as Argo should not be taken too seriously. Its most honorable moment is its opening, when the film insists that the CIA’s intervention in the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh provided a lasting wellspring of Iranian anger. This moment of honesty lures the spectator into a standard last-minute-rescue drama of questionable historical accuracy. At least today one can quickly turn to Wikipedia and confirm what one senses instinctively: first, the daring-do of the Americans is (needlessly) exaggerated at the expense of Canada and other Cold War allies; second, the quiet hero in this film is a completely fabricated creation: the Hollywood producer. Argo is an affable movie that instantiates my country’s need for excessive flag waving and Hollywood’s undying desire for self-promotion.
Argo offers a factoid of history: a feel good moment in a year where the real Iran hostage crisis destroyed Jimmy Carter’s presidency and brought Ronald Reagan to the White House. In contrast, Zero Dark Thirty takes head on the first major trauma of the 21st Century: 9/11 and the American response. The movie is bold in its recurrent depiction of torture as the CIA seeks to learn the whereabouts of its archenemy. Although the film shows that torture was not very effective in achieving this goal, its repeated depictions of these acts in a traditional Hollywood narrative suggest the workings of cause and effect: torture and torture again, until bin Laden is finally caught. In the end the film’s representations of torture must be acknowledged as ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations. Indeed, ambiguity—the ability to have it both ways—is one of Hollywood’s fortes.
Predictably the debate about the moral, ethical, and pragmatic uses of torture moved quickly off-stage. Again Wikipedia helpfully reminds us that the film made Senator John McCain sick “because [torture] is wrong.” As the former prisoner of war told the Senate, “Not only did the use of enhanced interrogation techniques … not provide us with key leads on bin Laden’s courier … it actually produced false and misleading information.” Others take the opposite side, perhaps forgetting that the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment and that torture is a war crime.
Director Kathryn Bigelow argues that Zero Dark Thirty “questions what was done in the name of finding bin Laden.” Certainly it seeks to show what was done, but the depth of its actual questioning is less certain. One might wish that the film was released as part of a double bill with Laura Poitras’s The Oath (2010), which takes Abu Jandal as its chief protagonist. Jandal, who had been bin Laden’s Amir of Hospitality, was in a Yemen prison on 9/11. Appalled by the death of so many innocent people, he freely provided the CIA with a treasure trove of information. His debriefing was so extensive—and fruitful—that the invasion of Afghanistan was postponed until the process was completed.
Two other documentaries that would facilitate an enhanced interrogation of Zero Dark Thirty are Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) and Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure (2008). Both suffered at the box office. Taxi to the Dark Side focuses on an innnocent Afghan taxi driver, who was tortured to death by American soldiers while held in extrajudicial detention. Standard Operating Procedure investigates the incident that most immediately exposed the casual use of torture in the post-9/11 wars—the notorious photographs of abuse taken in Abu Ghraib prison.
Perhaps it is to Bigelow’s credit that a quick glance at Wikipedia cannot answer the questions posed by her film: did these means justify this end? And, much more implicitly: what were the alternatives? Again in an ambiguous manner it shows the triumphant liquidation of US enemy no. 1, including the incidental killing of a too loyal wife protecting her dying husband. Perhaps it also offers a mildly feminist redemption in that it is a woman who pursued means other than torture to track down bin Laden succeeded in bringing him to account.
This is not to endorse either Argo or Zero Dark Thirty, though the later is extraordinarily well crafted. Film culture and the public sphere would be impoverished by a decision from commentators to dismiss them as mere entertainment. Certainly Hollywood movies require active, skeptical spectators to engage them––as well as critics who can foster that engagement. As their success suggests, these films are telling us stories that resonate with people’s anxieties and concerns. That needs to be acknowledged, not demeaned. And while Hollywood movies may be an obvious whipping boy, the need for dynamic even cynical spectators is hardly limited to American films.