Art and Politics

Zero Dark Thirty on Super Bowl Sunday

A friend on Facebook declared: “if you want to know everything wrong in the world, all you have to do is watch the stupid bowl.” Written during the course of the great event, I missed the comment in real time, as I missed the game. But I suspect she is right. And for this reason, I generally stay away, though with some ambivalence.

As a good American boy, I enjoyed playing the game and watching, and the memories of pleasures past linger (including watching games, in the less distant past, with my son, who was without my provocation a fan). Yet, football is more and more clearly brutal, with its special cult of violence becoming increasingly problematic. And the Super Bowl is not just another game; it has specific repulsive dressing. The ads are a spectacle of consumerism and all I hate about capitalism. Even though I begrudgingly offer capitalism two cheers, seeing no practical alternative in our world, I see no reason to see virtue in necessity, and it is off putting to celebrate. Super Bowl Sunday is a media event from which I abstain.

Last night, I followed my Super Bowl tradition, and went to the movies. I finally pushed myself to go see Zero Dark Thirty, with less than ten other people in the audience. I very reluctantly went. Following the debates about the film, I didn’t want to support a work that apparently credited torture for the killing of Osama bin Laden. I expected to be repulsed, not by the gratuitous violence of the film  (in football’s spirit). It was the violence of the message that concerned me. Proponents of torture applauded this Hollywood production as the exception that proves the rule of Hollywood’s liberal bias. Opponents of the use of “enhanced interrogation” denounced the film. And esthetes of various sorts, including the film’s director, claimed that as a work of art, one based on our very recent past, Zero Dark Thirty is intentionally without a clear political message, depicting the facts, opening discussion. I decided to decide for myself, and what better day to do so than the day of the “stupid bowl.”

To my surprise, my first impression was that the film isn’t nearly as objectionable as I had expected. Zero Dark Thirty is a successful Hollywood flick, flawed by political and moral mixed messages. Using the language of Malgorzata Bakalarz, it was presented as an important film and a work of art, but seemed to be, rather, an entertaining unimportant movie, which despite itself poses serious and important problems.

The film is gripping. Torture, the tortured and, especially, the torturers are immediately revealed, all properly repulsive. Knowing the end of the story heightens rather than reduces the drama, as one feels and doesn’t only view the advanced military maneuver, the attack on Bin Laden’s hideout. The unlikely hero, a young, petite, obsessed, female intelligence officer, attractively dominates the screen, alongside of her CIA superiors and the super macho Navy Seals of the successful operation. All, strikingly, offered her the proper deference in the end. This, along with the killing of Osama, provided for the required Hollywood happy ending.

Yet, the moral and political problems of this entertainment are very real. It is pretty clear that both torture and more acceptable forms of interrogation were used by the CIA and military intelligence in the pursuit of bin Laden. It is a matter of debate which was more important. Although the film doesn’t take a stand on this issue, it is notable that the story moves from torture to the capture and killing of bin Laden. Non-violent forms of interrogation are hardly noticeable. I think because torture makes for good pictures, while the more conventional and acceptable questioning of subjects doesn’t film as well or as easily, the film seems to argue, even when it doesn’t explicitly, that torture was a necessary evil, this, despite the fact that the evil was portrayed.

Our attractive hero observed and condoned torture, and even actively tortured. The normalization of this, its presentation without criticism is disturbing. I fear that this will become a dominant story line. A problem with film as the popular democratic form of telling history is that it has a way of becoming definitive.

On second thought maybe the Super Bowl would have been more benign thing to do yesterday. And perhaps there is a connection between American reading of our recent past and the collective ritual that is Super Bowl Sunday. As H. Rap Brown, the radical black nationalist in the sixties, once said, “violence is as American as cherry pie.”

  • susanai

    I found the movie to be just that, a movie. Do not understand the way the discussion about torture is behaving in America. These discussions were applicable in the Bush years. Why now are these discussions happening!