Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Preferential Patriotism: The strange "politics" of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty.

There isn't too much to say about this brief teaser. The title is guaranteed to confuse a good 90% of general moviegoers and I'll be shocked if Sony doesn't add a "The Hunt For Bin Laden" subtitle in there before the film comes out in December.  I may be the only one, but I laughed out loud at Jason Clarke repeatedly screaming "When was the last time you saw Bin Laden!?"  It's the kind of "make sure the dumbest moviegoer sitting in the theater gets what this movie is about" moment that sticks out like a sore thumb.  But what's worth noting more than the actual tease itself is the way the film will surely be judged by differing political factions. Obviously I haven't seen the film, but its pre-release vilification, best personified by Rep Peter King's hearings alleging that the film received classified materials during pre-production, is yet another example of how 9/11 changed the political conversation by basically making everything partisan.

In short we have a film by an Oscar winning filmmaker about one of the more successful military operations in recent history, a campaign that resulted in the death of the world's most wanted criminal. Yet there is a good chance that the film will be judged on both sides as some kind of pro-Obama picture. Thus the same factions that championed Act of Valor (which wasn't that bad, even acknowledging its value as propaganda) as a celebration of the superiority of America's fighting men and women may well treat this picture, arguably as much of a celebration of a grand American military success, as inherently less patriotic because it will celebrate a victory that occurred under the Obama administration. And, on the other side of that coin, there is a good chance that a film (seemingly) championing the mission that led to Bin Laden's death may well never have been made had said victory occurred under George W. Bush. At the very least, said film would have been viewed as a sort of jingoistic piece of big-screen nationalism by a decent chunk of liberals and/or progressives. Moreover, the kinds of politically-critical films that flourished in the latter half of the decade (think Lion For Lambs or In the Valley of Elah) have all-but disappeared since the inauguration of Barack Obama. Does anyone think we'll see a major studio release about Obama's 'kill list' in the same vein as we did regarding Bush's Iraq follies? More to the point, how would such a film (or documentary) be received?

Obviously this is a lot of speculation. We won't know the reaction until the film actually nears release. I imagine the outcome of the election will play a role as well, which is why I think it was a bit cowardly for Bigelow and/or Sony to delay the film until after the presidential contest. I'd level the same charge at Steven Spielberg as well, especially as Lioncoln's 'just days after the election' release date darn-well means we'll have some kind of critical reaction making the media rounds on Election Day. What do you think? Would your opinion of a 'hunt for Bin Laden' film change if Bin Laden had been killed under Bush's watch? Would we have gotten a film like this if Osama Bin Laden had been captured or killed five years ago instead of just over a year ago? It will be interesting to see if the GOP's standard 'support the troops' line will hold fast even while the Commander and Chief being 'celebrated' is on the opposition party.

Scott Mendelson


Alan Worsley said...

I don't think my opinion of the movie would have changed if Bin Laden had been killed under Bush...and, you probably know better on this count, but my gut instinct would say IF Bush had had a success anything like this we would have had multiple movies about it. But that's sort of the problem. What makes this particular mission so extraordinary was that it WAS risky, there was not a guarantee that Bin Laden was in that compound, there was a high risk of failure, and lets be honest, other than sparking a huge international incident it would have been the end of Obama's presidency if it HAD gone wrong.

In contrast, it is pretty clear from the historical record that the Bush administration was never really that serious about capturing him. When they DID have him cornered in a cave in Tora Bora, Bush pulled the special forces out - he made the opposite call. The reason we didn't have a movie like this under Bush, is frankly because Bush didn't have an unblemished success. The only thing done genuinely well militarily (putting politics aside) was the assault on Baghdad, but it did not take long for that bit to sour as it became clear that the whole point of being there was

In the words of Colbert, it's just unfortunate that reality has a well-known liberal bias.

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