I once heard a prominent expert on contemporary Islam say that Al Qaeda is not an organized group (and this was while Osama bin Laden was still alive). It isn’t even, primarily, a group of people at all. Al Qaeda is best understood as a body of discourse, a way of talking.
How do you fight a body of discourse? With another body of discourse, of course. The United States government is doing that in all sorts of ways, spreading the gospel of democratic capitalism and the American way of life.
But how do you make a movie about a war between two bodies of discourse? If you want to win awards, pack the theaters, and turn a profit, you don’t. A good movie has to start with a mythic script. And it’s awfully hard to find the myth in a war of discourse versus discourse.
So you make a movie about a war of good guys against bad guys. That’s about as mythic as it gets. It’s the American war story that has been made in Hollywood a thousand times -- well, a thousand and one, now that we have Zero Dark Thirty. I’m finally getting around to writing about the film, after just about everyone else in the world has had their say, because I finally got around to seeing it. It turns out there was no reason to rush anyway.
After all the controversy about the torture scenes, and Kathryn Bigelow’s highly publicized claim that her film merely depicts the horrors of American behavior in the “war on terror,” letting us all make up our own minds about the moral issues, I was expecting some complexity and ambiguity -- something like what she gave us in The Hurt Locker.
Instead I got two hours and thirty seven minutes of classic, mythic American war movie.
I suppose the difference between Bigelow’s two films is a good index of the difference between the two wars they depict, as far as public perception goes. A popular film about the Iraq war was bound to be ambiguous because, once Saddam Hussein was gone, no one could tell exactly who the enemy was. They were simply (as so many American soldiers told us on the evening news) “the bad guys.”
But as long as Osama was alive, the war against Al Qaeda was a perfectly unambiguous war. In fact it was a “good war," because it fit so well the prototype of all “good wars": the war against Nazi Germany. Both were waged against forces that had, without a doubt, done terrible things. And in both wars American forces also did terrible things. But American deeds were rarely called into question because the enemy’s deeds were so indisputably evil.
There is one major difference between World War II and the war against Al Qaeda: the Germans never made a significant attack on American soil. In that sense, the war against Japan is a better parallel to our current war.
But mythically (and thus cinematically) the war against Germany remains the prototype, for many reasons, no doubt. Zero Dark Thirty reminds us of one big reason: German forces were led by a single arch-villain, the man who remains for Americans the epitome of evil. Leadership in Japan was more diffuse. Since World War II, Americans have needed an enemy led by a single “Hitler figure” before they would sustain support for a war. Osama was the Hitler-est of them all.
Zero Dark Thirty also fits the WWII movie mold by giving us a superhero who wins the day. Granted, a woman who defeats the enemy by brainy manipulation of digital data is a far cry from John Wayne in the trenches. She’s a fine measure of how much American culture has changed in the last half-century or so.
Nevertheless, Zero Dark Thirty fits the WWII mold: a gripping story of one purely good person defeating one purely evil person (and an inept bureaucracy on her own side, to boot). It’s a dark, dirty job the superhero must do, even if she wears a clean white collar. But, then, as long as the evildoer is at large, commanding his forces of evil, it’s a dark, dirty world. Someone has to do the dirty work to clean up and purify this dirty world. Someone has to descend into the darkness to create a bright new light for all of us to bask in. And that someone, our national story insists, must be an American.
There’s another important parallel linking the war against Germany with the one against Al Qaeda. In both cases, neither the troops doing the fighting nor the general public knew very much at all about the beliefs, values, or ideologies that drove their enemies. They simply “knew” (that is, believed) that the arch-villain and his minions were evildoers who threatened the very existence of the United States and thus had to be stopped at all costs. That was the essence of the myth.
Zero Dark Thirty reflects that myth quite perfectly. We never get a hint of interest on the part of the American fighters in why their enemy perpetrates violence. This is Hollywood -- or perhaps I should say, this is America -- and it just doesn’t matter. As long as there is an American superhero pitted against a foreign arch-villain and our superhero wins, no questions need be asked. Perhaps that’s why all the controversy about this film has centered on the torture scenes, not on the simplistic, superficial, conventionally American triumphalism that prevents it from being a great film.
After the arch-villain is vanquished, though, there is one question to be asked -- the question that ends Zero Dark Thirty: Now that you are no longer threatened by the evildoer, “Where do you want to go?” I presume Kathryn Bigelow wants the audience to see Jessica Chastain, at that moment, as a symbol for America. Once we have defeated evil, where do we as a nation want to go?
The tear falling down Chastain’s cheek tells me that the question is supposed to make us all cry. Why? Finally, in the last seconds of a very long film, a note of ambiguity: You decide why.
I don’t have any trouble with that one. We Americans can unite so readily and act so effectively, as a nation, as long as we believe we are fighting an evil that threatens our country, or, to use Michael Sherry’s apt phrase, as long as we feel that we’re “in the shadow of war.”
But suppose we could escape from that shadow into a world that is no longer dark and dirty? Could we unite and choose a positive new direction for our nation? Our history since the 1940s suggests that we have largely forgotten how to do that.
We do fine when we are acting out our mythology of national insecurity. But if we try to think about acting out a mythology of hope and change, we don’t know how to change or even what to hope for. That is indeed worth shedding a tear for.