In the fiery battleground that is Internet commentary, the line between “artistic license” and “evil propaganda” is, evidently, a blurry one.
It’s striking that all but one film for a Best Drama Golden Globe – “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lincoln,” “Life of Pi,” “Django Unchained” and “Argo” – deal with influential events of American history. This distinctly American awards season (though Oscar nods for Best Film and Director for the foreign “Amour” is a big surprise) has led to a number of vehement controversies, both in consideration of accuracy and morality.
At the forefront of these controversies is “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s portrayal of hunting Osama bin Laden. In a pivotal scene early in the film, the location of bin Laden’s Abbottabad hideout is discovered through torture. Many argue the film doesn’t do enough to show this event is simply false. Others have taken this claim to bolder extremes.
“The path your career has now taken reminds of no one so much as that other female film pioneer who became, eventually, an apologist for evil: Leni Riefenstahl,” wrote The Guardian’s Naomi Wolf in an open letter to Bigelow, referring to the director of the 1935 movie “Triumph of the Will,” an artistic and commercial success that glorified the Nazi regime.
“Triumph of the Will” is pure propaganda, an explicit defense of Nazism, crafted without a single anti-Semitic word. “The Economist” has called Riefenstahl “the greatest female film-maker of the 20th century.”
Surely, a distinction between appropriate and inappropriate representation needs to be defined.
“When artists, intentionally or not, distort the known facts to get an effect, either political or commercial, they are on the wrong side of the line between poetic truth and historical falsification,” Richard Berstein wrote in a 1989 piece in the New York Times. This was before Oliver Stone’s 1991 “JFK,” a Best Picture Nominee that took borderline offensive liberties and influenced the public’s conspiratorial perception of the JFK assassination to this day.
“JFK” and “Triumph of the Will” (not to conflate the two on the scale of egregiousness) clearly fail Bernstein’s test. “Zero Dark Thirty” may oversimplify the role of “enhanced interrogation,” but its level of distortion is debatable. The movie goes to great lengths to showcase the complexity of the mission and the multitude of involved parties and tactics. The torture is appropriately gruesome and properly represents the culture of fear surrounding this investigation.
“The essential ingredient in any coercive interrogation is not the actual infliction of pain or discomfort, but fear,” Mark Bowden wrote for The Atlantic in response to “Zero Dark Thirty” criticisms. “Fear was a part of the climate of American interrogations in those years.”
While torture may not have produced the exact results shown in the film, that culture of fear it caused was, regrettably, a major factor. The course of events needed to be compacted into a feature-length time span, but all the moral ambiguity is intact and at the center of the entire film. There are no answers here. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a representation of the tension of a cultural moment, not unlike (though with much graver responsibility than) “The Social Network.”
“Lincoln,” rather than examine an event less than two years old, looks 150 years in the past and still made headlines. How accurate was Spielberg’s portrayal, and does it matter?
The consensus of historians is that “Lincoln” is impressively accurate, even if it moves the focus away from the abolitionist movement and overemphasizes Lincoln’s family relationships for dramatic effect.
“Lincoln” was well-received in part because it mirrors governmental and familial concerns from the present, as much if not more than the 1860s.
“Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty” are related in the sense that they focus their stories for an audience. “Lincoln” also might be proof that stories are going to be recrafted in future generations to fit a generation’s lens. “Zero Dark Thirty” won’t win awards for historical accuracy, but as a Hollywood dramatization (even one with documentary overtones), it’s within its bounds. Even if it comes to define initial popular understanding of events, it’s a much more complicated movie than sensationalistic critics are claiming, and unlikely to convince anyone that torture is anything but a complicated and disturbing practice.
Could Bigelow have used the film to make a much more explicit argument about torture? Absolutely, and it would have been commendable. But that isn’t her responsibility or her aim. Any critical viewing of the film would conclude that torture played a role in the Osama bin Laden story, but it was only part of a story that spanned ruthless tactics and moral quandaries. It isn’t a story of cause and effect, nor is it a comfortable representation. History is important to film, but context and purpose are imperative.
Cameron Mount is a senior English education major. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.