Just a few months ago, the consensus of the establishment press and the nation's (shockingly large) community of film critics was that Zero Dark Thirty was the best film of the year and the clear (and well-deserved) front-runner to win the most significant Academy Awards. "OK, folks, you can plan something else for Oscar Night 2013 . . . . Zero Dark Thirty will win Best Picture and Best Director (Kathryn Bigelow)," pronounced Time Magazine's Richard Corliss. "'Zero Dark Thirty' and Kathryn Bigelow won major critics' prizes on Sunday, confirming the Osama bin Laden manhunt thriller as an Oscar frontrunner," said Entertainment Weekly. The film "looks like the movie to beat right now" as the critics' awards "landscape is dominated by Kathryn Bigelow's 'Zero Dark Thirty,'" reported the Washington Post's Jen Chaney.
But then political writers had begun to notice what film critics either failed to detect or just wilfully ignored. The film falsely depicted torture as instrumental in the finding of Osama bin Laden ("what is so unsettling about 'Zero Dark Thirty' is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it", said the New Yorker's Jane Mayer). Beyond the torture falsehoods, it was a blatant vehicle for CIA propaganda, bolstering a worldview exclusively out of Langley ("This is not a coincidence. The CIA played a key role in shaping the film's narrative," reported BuzzFeed's Michael Hastings; the CIA "couldn't have asked for better product placement", said the New York Times' Timothy Egan; as a result, said The Atlantic's Peter Maass: "Zero Dark Thirty represents a new genre of embedded filmmaking that is the problematic offspring of the worrisome endeavor known as embedded journalism"). In sum, said MSNBC's Chris Hayes, the film "colludes with evil" (a long but very partial list of writers, filmmakers, FBI agents and even government officials who similarly denounced the film is here).
The first sign that this fallout was harming the film was when its director, Bigelow, was not even nominated for Best Director. And now, on Sunday night at the Academy Awards, Zero Dark Thirty got exactly what it deserved: basically nothing other than humiliation:
"'Zero Dark Thirty,' about the decade-long US hunt for Osama bin Laden, has received more attention in the US Congress than it did at the Oscars on Sunday, amid political fallout over its depiction of torture and alleged intelligence leaks to the movie's makers. . . .
"Just three months ago, the thriller, which culminates in Osama bin Laden's killing by US Navy Seals, was a strong contender to pick up the biggest prize of Best Picture, as well as the Best Actress and Original Screenplay awards.
"By the end of Sunday night, however, it had picked up just one award – a shared Oscar for Sound Editing, which was a tie."
(I'm actually glad that it won essentially half of an award, for sound editing, as that's somehow more cruel than if it just won nothing).
This is a rare case of some justice being done. There's little question that the objections to its pro-torture depictions and CIA propaganda were what sunk the film. In explaining why its Oscar chances had all but disappeared, the Atlantic's Richard Lawson explained last month that as a result of the controversy, the film has "just become something vaguely taboo". That's a good thing, as it should be taboo. The film is unsurprisingly a box office success, earning in excess of $100 million. But still, it's both gratifying and a bit surprising to see that this CIA-shaped jingoistic celebration of America's proudest moment of the last decade - finding bin Laden, pumping his skull full of bullets, and then dumping his corpse into the ocean - ended up with the stigma it deserves.
In response to this controversy, both Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have compounded their original bad acts. Bigelow spent months literally pretending that the actual criticisms of her film did not exist and thus never addressed them. She instead chose to wage war on the obviously ludicrous strawman argument that absolutely nobody made: that merely to depict torture is to endorse it and that omitting torture would be to "whitewash" history. Nobody complained that the film depicted torture; the complaint was that it falsely depicted it as vital in finding bin Laden and thus portrayed it in a falsely positive light.
Meanwhile, Boal has been playing the McCarthyism martyr by pretending that the Senate is investigating his film over its pro-torture message. Such an investigation would indeed be odious, but it's a figment of Boal's imagination. To the extent the Senate has expressed any interest in investigating, it is not over the film's content but whether the CIA passed classified information about the bin Laden raid to Bigelow and Boal in order to get the film it wanted (though not dispositive, there is ample evidence to believe this). The investigation targets the CIA, not the filmmakers. For an administration that has waged its own war on whistleblowers by prosecuting and imprisoning them at record numbers, surely the CIA's abuse of classified information for the purpose of producing Hollywood propaganda merits a formal investigation, particularly since the government has vigorously resisted disclosure attempts in court from the media and advocacy groups on the ground that the bin Laden raid is classified.
From this controversy, the film critic community stood revealed as well. Objections to this film triggered an incredibly acrimonious reaction on the part of professional critics who, prior to the emergence of the controversy, had lavished the film with the most gushing accolades. One of the best essays on why that happened was from Reuters' culture critic Alissa Quart, who explained that the critics' anger over this film being "politicized" reflects a broader syndrome where political indifference is viewed as some sort of virtue:
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"In the postwar decades, the best reviewers of the day saw addressing the politics within the cultural works they reviewed as part of their jobs. . . . Writers like [Mary] McCarthy, who was both a theater critic and a political writer, were more attuned to the ideological sources behind play and film, as they came up in the Depression and the war years, according to Hunter College Professor Richard Kaye, who is working on a project about McCarthy. After all, art was explicitly tied to politics within fascism as well as within communist states. Watching the power of ideology at work within fascism made writers more likely to combine politics with aesthetics. They understood the propagandistic potential of overwhelmingly dramatic popular entertainment."
"Today, in part because because popular art has largely been decoupled from politics, film critics tend to be narrower in their expertise. They are also operating in an America where 'partisan' and 'political' have been made to equal each other in a toxic way. Thus, critics and many political thinkers can't necessarily agree on a critical focus. . . .
"But if political writers do their job well, they understand something even more important: that ideological meaning and agendas are not incidental to thrilling films and cinematography. Why surgically remove politics from a discussion of a film's final quality, rendering the argument so purely aesthetic that it becomes low-brow decadent . . . . Ethical lapses or gaps in movies should be critiqued, along with bad performances or absurd storylines."
Another equally good discussion of the exposed mentality of film critics came from Jeff Reichert, himself a filmmaker and critic:
"If Bigelow and Boal want to insist they haven't made a movie that validates torture morally, that's fine. But to label it apolitical, as they have repeatedly done, either suggests willful mendacity or ignorance. Their film quite clearly stakes out a position on one of the more controversial political questions of the last decade in American politics, and soon it will be making its case several times a day on thousands of screens around the country. Greenwald's writings on the film may hyperventilate, but when one considers the scale of the historical rewrite we're about to witness, his pitched tenor is more forgivable. Maybe 'propaganda' isn't so far off the mark after all.
"If our critical culture handled films of this ilk with something other than kid gloves, we might not have to continually address these same, tired questions. . . . It's become all too commonplace for critics to float above the fray, and praise works they find aesthetically valuable and politically questionable (a replaying of the old Leni Riefenstahl debate again), but is this l'art pour l'art stance any way to watch movies? Isn't this just abdicating a crucial part of the critical act? Wouldn't we rather our film writers be morally engaged viewers rather than diffident aesthetes? . . . .
"Especially in light of how the filmmakers have spoken about their work, the problem with Zero Dark Thirty becomes less that it ends up making a forceful case for the efficacy of torturing human beings for national security - it's that one can easily walk away from the film doubting whether Bigelow and Boal have even realized that this is what they've done."
In an era where virtually everything the government does is shielded from disclosure, democratic accountability, and even the rule of law, films such as Zero Dark Thirty that purport to tell political stories are inherently highly political, likely to have an enormous impact on how political events are perceived. When blatant falsehoods are presented as truth on critical questions - by a film that touts itself as a journalistic presentation of actual events - insisting on apolitical appreciation of this "art" is indeed a reckless abdication.
That's particularly true when the film creates itself as a servant to political power: by itself, the CIA's heavy (and still unexamined) involvement in this film is a significant and disturbing development. The last thing America needs is more ways to celebrate and glorify US militarism, and the second-to-last thing it needs is Hollywood devoting its multi-million-dollar budgets and emotionally and psychologically manipulative tactics to propagating the CIA worldview as indisputable, inspiring truth. It's a very good thing that all of this did not go unnoticed or rewarded.
The film that won most of the significant awards (including Best Picture), Argo, has received its own criticisms for false history and US/CIA propaganda; as but one example, see here from Iranian-American writer Nima Shirazi. Whatever is true about that film showing events from three decades ago, the CIA was much more involved with and invested in Zero Dark Thirty; that's why it played such a significant role in how it was made.