Impressions Under Water

Triumph of the Will gave Riefenstahl instant and lasting international fame, as well as infamy. Although she directed only eight films, just two of which received significant coverage outside of Germany, Riefenstahl was widely known all her life. The propaganda value of her films made during the 1930s repels most modern commentators, but many film histories cite the aesthetics as outstanding. The Economist wrote that Triumph of the Will “sealed her reputation as the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century”.

Zero Dark Thirty: CIA hagiography, pernicious propaganda

Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian

Friday 14 December 2012 10.03 EST

In US political culture, there is no event in the last decade that has inspired as much collective pride and pervasive consensus as the killing of Osama bin Laden.

This event has obtained sacred status in American political lore. Nobody can speak ill of it, or even question it, without immediately prompting an avalanche of anger and resentment. The news of his death triggered an outburst of patriotic street chanting and nationalistic glee that continued unabated two years later into the Democratic National Convention. As Wired’s Pentagon reporter Spencer Ackerman put it in his defense of the film, the killing of bin Laden makes him (and most others) “very, very proud to be American.” Very, very proud.

The fact that nice liberals who already opposed torture (like Spencer Ackerman) felt squeamish and uncomfortable watching the torture scenes is irrelevant. That does not negate this point at all. People who support torture don’t support it because they don’t realize it’s brutal. They know it’s brutal – that’s precisely why they think it works – and they believe it’s justifiable because of its brutality: because it is helpful in extracting important information, catching terrorists, and keeping them safe. This film repeatedly reinforces that belief by depicting torture exactly as its supporters like to see it: as an ugly though necessary tactic used by brave and patriotic CIA agents in stopping hateful, violent terrorists.

(T)he idea that Zero Dark Thirty should be regarded purely as an apolitical “work of art” and not be held accountable for its political implications is, in my view, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, and ultimately amoral claptrap. That’s true for several reasons.

First, this excuse completely contradicts what the filmmakers themselves say about what they are doing. Bigelow has been praising herself for the “journalistic” approach she has taken to depicting these events. The film’s first screen assures viewers that it is all “based on first hand accounts of actual events”. You can’t claim you’re doing journalism and then scream “art” to justify radical inaccuracies. Serwer aptly noted the manipulative shell-game driving this: “If you’re thinking of giving them an award, Zero Dark Thirty is ‘history’; if you’re a journalist asking a question about a factual error in the film, it’s just a movie.”

Second, the very idea that this is some sort of apolitical work of art is ludicrous. The film is about the two most politicized events of the last decade: the 9/11 attack (which it starts with) and the killing of bin Laden (which it ends with). George Bush got re-elected running on the former, while Obama just got re-elected running on the latter. It was made with the close cooperation of the CIA, Pentagon and White House. Everything about this film – its subject, its claims, its mode of production, its implications – are political to its core. It does not have an apolitical bone in its body. Demanding that political considerations be excluded from how this film is judged is nonsensical; it’s a political film from start to finish.

Third, to demand that this movie be treated as “art” is to expand that term beyond any real recognition. This film is Hollywood shlock. The brave crusaders slay the Evil Villains, and everyone cheers.

While parts of the film are technically well-executed, it features almost every cliche of Hollywood action/military films. The characters are one-dimensional cartoons: the heroine is a much less interesting and less complex knock-off of Homeland’s Carrie: a CIA agent who sacrifices her personal life, disregards bureaucratic and social niceties, her careerist interests, and even her own physical well-being, in monomaniacal pursuit of The Big Terrorist.

Worst of all, it does not challenge, subvert, or even unsettle a single nationalistic orthodoxy. It grapples with no big questions, takes no risks in the political values it promotes, and is even too fearful of letting upsetting views be heard, let alone validated (such as the grievances of Terrorists that lead them to engage in violence, or the equivalence between their methods and “ours”).

There’s nothing courageous, or impressive, about any of this.

Do the defenders of this film believe Riefenstahl has also gotten a bad rap on the ground that she was making art, and political objections (ie, her films glorified Nazism) thus have no place in discussions of her films? I’ve actually always been ambivalent about that debate because, unlike Zero Dark Thirty, Riefenstahl’s films only depicted real events and did not rely on fabrications.

Do defenders of Zero Dark Thirty view Riefenstahl critics as overly ideological heathens who demand that art adhere to their ideology? If the KKK next year produces a superbly executed film devoted to touting the virtues of white supremacy, would it be wrong to object if it wins the Best Picture Oscar on the ground that it promotes repellent ideas?

I have a very hard time seeing liberal defenders of Zero Dark Thirty extending their alleged principles about art to films that, unlike this film, are actually unsettling, provocative and controversial. It’s quite easy to defend this film because it’s ultimately going to be pleasing to the vast majority of US viewers as it bolsters and validates their assumptions. That’s why it seems to me that the love this film is inspiring is inseparable from its political content: it’s precisely because it makes Americans feel so good – about an event that Ackerman says makes him “very, very proud to be American” – that it is so beloved.

1 comment

  1. ek hornbeck

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