(An edited version of this piece appeared in the February 2013 edition of the UCC Motley)
Unless you have been living under a rock for the last few months, it would have been impossible to not hear about the then upcoming, and now released, movie Zero Dark Thirty, which puts onto celluloid the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Taking as its starting point the attacks on the Twin Towers, the movie charts the mission from the perspective of one female CIA agent up until Bin Laden’s assassination at the hands of a SEAL team. This depiction of the hunt for Bin Laden has been much lauded and it has thus far been nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and four Golden Globes, with the director, Kathryn Bigelow, specifically coming in for much of the praise; her portrayal of strong women in it earning her the title of a feminist hero in some quarters.Despite the praise however, it has also been much criticised for its rather graphic portrayal of torture in order to mine information about the whereabouts of Bin Laden – torture which, by the way, was in no way responsible for acquiring the information which lead to discovering Bin Laden’s location. Human Rights Watch and even U.S. Senators have issued statements deploring the portrayal of torture in Zero Dark Thirty and the way in which it is shown to be effective; something which even the former head of the CIA, Leon Panetta, has said to not be the case. But this criticism misses another point raised in the feature film that is commonplace in much of Hollywood’s output when it comes to the Middle East: That Arabs are deceitful, not simply less than human, but unhuman, and therefore not worthy of not being tortured and killed, and certainly not worthy of our pity.
This is demonstrated to us quite clearly within the first five minutes when an Arab prisoner is being tortured relentlessly. His interrogator refers to him as “A disgrace to humanity”, which sets the tone for much of the rest of the viewing. This should not come as a surprise to anybody who is remotely aware of the history of the Middle East and how it has been treated in Western popular culture for decades and even centuries. It is a geographical area to be controlled and ruled by us, the West, as the indigenous inhabitants “…cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” – this being Marx writing in 1852 about Napoleon’s attempt to conquer Egypt 54 years previous. Zero Dark Thirty is simply a microcosm of U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East in which the lives of the natives are of no consequence or concern. They are merely bugs to be crushed under the boot of imperialist interests and power – aptly enough, the term given to victims of U.S. drone strikes is “bug splats”. We can see this in Zero Dark Thirty where we see concern for the interrogators and their wellbeing, whilst nothing of the sort is shown for the prisoners. We see the psychological toll of the war on the perpetrators but not anybody else as, being Arabs, they are not worthy of our pity or empathy. This is shown as evidence of our reluctance to engage in activities in the Middle East which would be seen as inhumane if carried out in the West; that we only undertake such a course of action when we have no other choice, and reluctantly at that. After all, what’s another dead or tortured Arab between Western, civilised friends?
This “Hollywoodising” of U.S. foreign policy has an effect on the public’s perception of what it is acceptable to do under the guise of security. Amy Zegart, a Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, has noted as much. It would appear that under the Obama administration, the public has become more likely to agree with torturing suspected terrorists, including using waterboarding, and assassinating suspected terrorists. Zegart, who had a poll carried out of 1,000 Americans in August of last year, even discovered that 25 percent of people would use a nuclear bomb to stop a terrorist threat. Where the true power of the “Hollywoodising” effect is clearly shown is when the policy opinions of those who watch spy-themed shows, compared to those who don’t, are examined. What Zegart discovered was that “Americans who say they frequently watch spy-themed television shows or movies are significantly more likely than infrequent watchers to approve of assassinating terrorists, torturing terrorists, and using every torture technique pollsters asked about except threatening terrorist detainees with dogs”. One can be sceptical of such correlations but as the U.S. Navy have stated before, Top Gun was one of its best recruitment tools, with recruitment rising by over 500 percent after the movie’s release.
The relationship between Hollywood and the U.S. military is further solidified by the fact that Bigelow and her producer and screenwriter, Mark Boal, were both given access to documents and records pertaining to the hunt for Bin Laden, and the subsequent raid on his compound, that even members of Congress do not have access to, and they were also personally briefed by high-ranking members of the CIA. What makes the project of Bigelow and Boal so insidious is that they proclaim their work to be neutral; that in particular, there is no stance taken either way regarding the presentation of torture in Zero Dark Thirty. This is, quite simply, an oxymoron. By characterising torture as neutral it is apparently left up to the viewer to decide for themselves whether or not it is immoral, even though it is made quite clear in Zero Dark Thirty, fictitiously so, that it is an effective tool in the arsenal of the “War on Terror”, thus invalidating any claims of neutrality that the filmmakers have made. What Zero Dark Thirty truly portrays is acquiescence to the whims and needs of power, and all under the guise of supposed neutrality and entertainment.