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Sun Feb 3, 2013, 07:35 AM


ZD30: Hollywood does history.

This opinion piece, by Tarak Barkawi, is a thoughtful and convincing explanation of why the movie Zero Dark Thirty is more about justifying the "War On Terror" than it is about anything that could rightly be called "History."

Pundits and moviegoers across the US are vigorously debating Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Much of the debate concerns whether or not the film is an accurate retelling of history. According to the film, CIA torture was essential to finding bin Laden. Nearly every piece of evidence the film’s hero—a CIA agent named Maya played by Jessica Chastain—collects derives in one way or another from “enhanced interrogation”. As if watching a film amounted to serious research, MSNBC’s conservative talk show host Joe Scarborough concluded that ZD30 shows that the CIA torture program was in fact effective.

Hey, wait a minute there! If you can't trust Joe Scarborough, who the hell can you trust?

Liberal commentators, meanwhile, are appalled that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have ignored some of the few available facts about the Bush Administration’s global archipelago of gulags. US senators, with access to classified materials, point out that there is serious dispute within the CIA, FBI and other agencies over whether torture played such an important role in finding bin Laden. Bigelow and Boal invited this debate over the historical accuracy of their film. ZD30 begins with the claim that it is “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events”. As if the film were journalism as well as history, Bigelow has termed it a “reported film”. Boal assured the New York Times that he had no intention of playing “fast and loose with history”. Having shown us just how it really was, Bigelow opines of torture, “I wish it was not part of our history. But it was.” Indeed.

Most astonishing in all this is the very idea that a film can amount to a proper history of anything, much less that of the War on Terror. Two hours in a dark theatre being buffeted by the mesmerising magics of master filmmakers has little in common with sifting documents from departments of state or crafting interpretations of major events. Yet—and here is the really scary thing—it is undeniable that Americans do in fact get their history from Hollywood. Right now, in addition to learning about the hunt for bin Laden, they are also “studying” the US civil war and the emancipation of the slaves in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

This author is clearly on to something important. We do put ourselves at considerable risk of manipulation by the unscrupulous if we allow movies, basically just entertainment, to be our main source for United States and World history. Perhaps taking a few more hours of American History, beyond the three usually required for most bachelor degrees, might be a good idea after all?

The important question then is not whether ZD30 is accurate, but rather just what supposed truths is it purveying? What are Americans learning about their “history” from it? As Rutgers University’s Susan Carruthers notes, ZD30 should be seen as a work of “cultural recuperation”, an effort to supply a happy ending to the War on Terror, and a reinterpretation of Iraq and Afghanistan as something other than “mistakes, catastrophes or abominations.” That is, ZD30 is less a film about the War on Terror than it is part of the war effort itself. For a crucial thing about wars is how they are remembered, what significance they are seen to have had. The greatest and darkest conflagration humanity has ever known—World War II—is remembered in the US as the “Good War”, in part because of Hollywood’s films about it. That memory has consequences: George W. Bush was channelling the Good War when he imagined his troops would be received as liberators in Iraq.

I have to agree with Mr. Barkawi that Zero Dark Thirty is, intentionally or not, a War on Terror propaganda film, and has no more real grounding in the facts about our torture regime under the Cheney/Bush administration than John Wayne's darkly laughable Green Berets had in facts concerning the Vietnam War. To read the complete opinion piece click below:


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Reply ZD30: Hollywood does history. (Original post)
another_liberal Feb 2013 OP
obamanut2012 Feb 2013 #1
another_liberal Feb 2013 #2
Bluenorthwest Feb 2013 #3
another_liberal Feb 2013 #4
MadHound Feb 2013 #5
another_liberal Feb 2013 #6

Response to another_liberal (Original post)

Sun Feb 3, 2013, 08:47 AM

1. And, my takeaway of teh movie was the opposite

I am a pacifist, and 100% anti torture.

I can understand why this movie would not be someone's cup of tea, but I honestly do not think it glorifies or justifies war, torture, the War on Terror, etc.

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Response to obamanut2012 (Reply #1)

Sun Feb 3, 2013, 09:48 AM

2. Just the fact . . .


Just the fact that you identify yourself as a "pacifist" leads me to believe you are most likely far better informed about history, generally, and our "War on Terror" than the majority of Americans who see Zero Dark Thirty. I'm encouraged you found it at least neutral on promoting torture, mass warrantless seizures, imprisonment without charges or trial and preemptive invasions of weaker nations (whose oil we intended to steal). I do, though, doubt if more than a small fraction of those who eventually see this movie share enough of your background knowledge to maintain a clear and dispassionate impression of what it shows them.

Zero Dark Thirty, in its pretensions to historical accuracy, may well be doing its devoted fans a real disservice.

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Response to another_liberal (Reply #2)

Sun Feb 3, 2013, 10:22 AM

3. In general, I tend to reject arguments that are based on framing others as too stupid to know that


a movie is a movie and not a serious history of anything. I don't think this film has 'devoted fans' and frankly the use of such characterizations is exactly what I am talking about. Both you and the OP should just say 'I think those who are not me are duped easily by a medium they are just as used to as I am, which they grew up watching, which they know to be contrived and created'.
The theory that 'those stupid others' won't understand what the wise author understands is nothing but worthless self congratulation, it is not really about the film, nor about the stupid others it is just a wind around path to saying 'I am smart enough, but they are not as smart as me.'
I just read another thread about the body they found that might be that of Richard the Third. This ties in with the subject of this thread because Richard has been subject of many dramatic portrayals which were not always accurate historically for centuries now. This has not hindered the research or the understanding of the actual history and facts, in reality the fact that Richard has been subject of entertaining and inaccurate dramas helps to fund the interest in and the actual costs of such research.

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Response to Bluenorthwest (Reply #3)

Sun Feb 3, 2013, 01:15 PM

4. A lack of knowledge is ignorance, not "stupidity."


Last edited Sun Feb 3, 2013, 02:13 PM - Edit history (2)

Having taught American history for over a decade, in higher education, I do know a little about the quality of historical literacy in our country today. It is, shall we say, rather dismal.

Please forgive me if I seem self congratulatory, but would you rather I sugar-coated it and lied about how much people generally know?

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Response to another_liberal (Original post)

Sun Feb 3, 2013, 01:18 PM

5. Hollywood and history are an anathema to each other,


Hollywood wants to tell a great, best selling story, and sacrifices historical accuracy every single time. About the best that Hollywood can aspire to in regards to history is giving a person a sense of what it would be like to live in a particular time period or another, and frequently it gets even that wrong.

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Response to MadHound (Reply #5)

Sun Feb 3, 2013, 02:08 PM

6. Well put.


Well put indeed.

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