ZD30: Hollywood does history

ZD30 again highlights the reality that cinema teaches Americans more about history than the hard labour of historians.

ZD30's portrayal of 'enhanced interrogation' being integral to the finding of bin Laden has drawn a great deal of criticism, writes author [AP]

Pundits and moviegoers across the US are vigorously debating Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. 

Much of the debate concerns whether or not the film is an accurate retelling of history. According to the film, CIA torture was essential to finding bin Laden. Nearly every piece of evidence the film’s hero—a CIA agent named Maya played by Jessica Chastain—collects derives in one way or another from “enhanced interrogation”. 

As if watching a film amounted to serious research, MSNBC’s conservative talk show host Joe Scarborough concluded that ZD30 shows that the CIA torture program was in fact effective. 

Liberal commentators, meanwhile, are appalled that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have ignored some of the few available facts about the Bush Administration’s global archipelago of gulags. US senators, with access to classified materials, point out that there is serious dispute within the CIA, FBI and other agencies over whether torture played such an important role in finding bin Laden. 

Bigelow and Boal invited this debate over the historical accuracy of their film. ZD30 begins with the claim that it is “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events”. As if the film were journalism as well as history, Bigelow has termed it a “reported film”. Boal assured the New York Times that he had no intention of playing “fast and loose with history”. 

Having shown us just how it really was, Bigelow opines of torture, “I wish it was not part of our history. But it was.” Indeed. 

Most astonishing in all this is the very idea that a film can amount to a proper history of anything, much less that of the War on Terror. Two hours in a dark theatre being buffeted by the mesmerising magics of master filmmakers has little in common with sifting documents from departments of state or crafting interpretations of major events. 

Yet—and here is the really scary thing—it is undeniable that Americans do in fact get their history from Hollywood. Right now, in addition to learning about the hunt for bin Laden, they are also “studying” the US civil war and the emancipation of the slaves in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

The important question then is not whether ZD30 is accurate, but rather just what supposed truths is it purveying? What are Americans learning about their “history” from it? As Rutgers University’s Susan Carruthers notes, ZD30 should be seen as a work of “cultural recuperation”, an effort to supply a happy ending to the War on Terror, and a reinterpretation of Iraq and Afghanistan as something other than “mistakes, catastrophes or abominations.” 

That is, ZD30 is less a film about the War on Terror than it is part of the war effort itself. For a crucial thing about wars is how they are remembered, what significance they are seen to have had. The greatest and darkest conflagration humanity has ever known—World War II—is remembered in the US as the “Good War”, in part because of Hollywood’s films about it. That memory has consequences: George W. Bush was channelling the Good War when he imagined his troops would be received as liberators in Iraq. 

Popular films are enormously powerful vehicles for altering the meaning and significance of a war. From the late 1940s until 1975, the US funded and then directly participated in a series of futile wars designed to crush the national aspirations of the Vietnamese people. Along with the French and the South Vietnamese regime, the US helped to kill somewhere between two and three million people. Much of this killing was done from the air as the US Air Force and Navy unleashed their murderous flocks on the peasantry, cooking them with napalm, blasting them with high explosive, strafing them with cannon, and contaminating their unborn children and their lands with Agent Orange. Torture, assassination and summary execution were the order of the day, as they were in many countries ruled by US clients during the Cold War. 

Needless to say, this is not how Americans generally remember Vietnam nor, a few critical films aside, is it how Hollywood has represented the war. Vietnam War films focus almost exclusively on the suffering of small bands of US soldiers and veterans. They tell tales of how the US Army was supposedly stabbed in the back by lily-livered liberals in Washington (in fact Cold War liberals were the biggest advocates of intervention). They play endlessly on the tragic abandonment of US POWs by those same liberals (in fact it was Nixon and Kissinger who accepted Communist assurances they had returned all the POWs). Latterly, with the help of Mel Gibson in We Were Soldiers (dir. Randall Wallace, 2002), Vietnam took on the colour of a World War II action flick complete with brave heroes and comely Christian wives waiting for their men to return home. 

It is this comic book “history” of Vietnam that Presidents G.H.W. and G.W. Bush had in mind when they mobilised their country for two wars in the Persian Gulf. The tragic cycle of repeating Vietnam in Iraq was in part enabled by Hollywood. 

But since the War on Terror is still very much on-going and shows little sign of abating, ZD30 is perhaps best compared to a film that was more directly part of the war effort in Vietnam: The Green Berets (dirs. Ray Kellogg and John Wayne 1968). It was made to generate public support for the war. 

John Wayne was profoundly confused about what was happening in Vietnam, but he had the good sense to be against torture and assassination.

In the film’s memorable opening sequence, a Special Forces medic played by Raymond St. Jacques explains in homely terms why the US must support the South Vietnamese struggle against Communism: “If the same thing happened here in the United States, every mayor in every city would be murdered; every teacher . . . would be tortured and killed; every professor that you’ve ever heard of, every governor, every senator, every member of the House of Representatives, and their combined families, would be tortured and killed, and a like number kidnapped.” 

Of course in reality, the US and its allies did their share of torturing and murdering in Vietnam. But John Wayne’s America would never publically support such things. Whatever had to be done in this vein was done secretly and out of view, and was not to be celebrated. 

What ZD30 registers and tries to make normal is a US that publically acknowledges and supports the torture, assassination and kidnapping of terrorist suspects. It is a US comfortable with the idea that to avenge its 3,000 dead on 9/11, two countries could be invaded and wars started in which hundreds of thousands died, as long as bin Laden was gotten in the end. And it is a US at ease with the prospect that its robotic aerial assassins can fly anywhere, anytime to deal out death with impunity, even to US citizens. 

Whatever their intentions, Bigelow and Boal have become troopers in the War on Terror. It is up to the rest of us to seek our history elsewhere than in Hollywood. 

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research