Kathryn Bigelow’s op-ed in the L.A. Times rebutting criticisms of her film is about more than Zero Dark Thirty. The piece also demonstrates a tendency that’s only all to frequent when it comes to the upper echelons of cultural and political discourse. Bigelow manufactures accusations in order to easily rebuff them, ignoring the best critiques of Zero Dark Thirty and focusing on strawman arguments instead.
This is a common rhetorical tactic.
Rather than engage her detractors in an actual debate she chooses to offer up a defense of the movie that is addressed directly to the movie’s potential audience. And why not? Most of the people who have taken issue with the film are not part of Bigelow’s community. They aren’t movie critics, cinephiles, or enthusiasts. They’re mostly journalists and political writers, bloggers and general commentators. As such Bigelow knows there’s no reason to directly engage them since they don’t matter. So she targets the only undecided audience left: those general audience members who still might see her movie, and who might also tell others to go and see it as well.
It is an unfortunate strategy in so far as it cynically recognizes the lack of any real consequences for letting accusations of falsity and distortion stand. Why engage the Glenn Greenwalds or Adam Sewers when you can bypass them all together and convince your general audience that a parody of those people’s arguments is obviously untrue?
Politicians do this regularly. They talk either implicitly or explicitly to “the American people.” Engaging political opponents or critics directly would require arguing against particular claims and specific sets of facts. So instead they address their arguments to a general audience, knocking their opponents for holding views that they don’t actually hold. It is a dishonest strategy. But there can be no doubt that it is politically effective.
Onto analyzing Bigelow’s op-ed.
“The goal, to make a modern, rigorous film about counter-terrorism, centered on one of the most important and classified missions in American history, was exciting and worthy enough, or so it seemed.”
That, in Bigelow’s own words, is what the movie is about. That’s its subject. Remember that.
She explains how she didn’t think that movie would get made initially, but ultimately “we got the movie made and found studio partners with the courage to release it.” She calls her “studio partners” courageous. Remember that.
“[M]any people have asked me if I was surprised by the brouhaha that surrounded the film while it was still in limited release,” writes Bigelow, “when many thoughtful people were characterizing it in wildly contradictory ways.”
Here she sets up the context and her primary contention: she’s writing this because “many people have asked,” locating the motivation for her op-ed with the people rather than the “wildly contradictory ways” some people have criticized her movie. Thus, while she is going to correct the contradictions of the some, she’s actually talking to the rest—a subtle point but one that I think says a lot about Bigelow as an artist.
She explains that she is an unabashed pacifist. She does not support torture or inhumane treatment of any kind. Good enough.
However, since her politics are beyond reproach, she insists that it must be the U.S. policies portrayed in her film that some critics are actually taking issue with. They mistake the messenger for the message. She is simply telling us what happened—she’s not the one who actually did it.
Which is why she reminds us that to depict is not to endorse. Except that no one’s argument against the film has ever been that Bigelow was at fault simply for showing torture on screen. And if she bothered to actually link to criticisms of her film, and address their authors head-on, that dishonesty would be obvious. But because she’s taking the “let me tell you about my critics and what they don’t get” approach she’s able to distort what’s at issue as much as her film distorts the subject matter it purports to authentically examine.
“Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue,” writes Bigelow, begging the question she has yet to answer of why she doesn’t include any similar level of confusion and disagreement in her film.
Rather, Bigelow defends the movie’s fearless devotion to portraying the truth by co-opting the very position of her opponents: that the movie *should not* have portrayed military action (and mostly paramilitary action) as “free from moral consequences.” She claims that critics want the movie to do something it shouldn’t do (not show torture), when in fact they’re claiming that it should have done just that; it should have employed more nuance and and multiplicty in the service of social critique. The only way Bigelow could think she wasn’t embarrassing herself is if she thought the audience that this op-ed was speaking to didn’t have any idea about the context in which it was written.
“In that vein” she assumes a level of ignorance that is of a piece with what precisely is so problematic about her film. She assumes her audience will be too ignorant to know that Zero Dark Thirty has been criticized for *not* portraying the truth and for *not* dealing more with the moral dilemmas associated with the counterterrorism which led to UBL’s capture. If anything this lends more credence to critics’ claims that too much of the “moral ambiguity” associated with Zero Dark Thirty must be supplied by politically savvy audience members rather than characters, situations and dramatic positioning in the within the film.
Bigelow’s final paragraph is the most telling,
“Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.”
As she said at the top, the point of this project was to make a movie about the hunt for UBL and those who caught him. In other words a movie about American’s who “fought bravely,” only crossed moral lines “sometimes,” and who gave all of themselves for “the defense of this nation.”
This is the reading of the film that critics who took issue with Zero Dark Thirty all seemed to have. I grant that other readings of the film, like Alyssa Rosenberg’s or Glen Kenny’s, are reasonable, even if I think that those readings are ultimately weaker, less accurate, and much less obvious. But Bigelow chose not to engage with critics through those readings of Zero Dark Thirty. She chose to claim (without offering evidence or textual support), that the movie *was* morally ambiguous while at the same time claiming that it’s about how brave men and women gave their all to keep the country safe and find UBL, a decidedly unambiguous sentiment.
As I said before, the reason Bigelow employs this ridiculous logic is because she knows she can get away with it. Regular readers won’t know any better just like regular viewers will be at a disadvantage when they see a movie that claims a journalistic integrity while at the same time actively making stuff (important stuff) up. They won’t know any better, and they won’t look it up after. Just like most politicians choose to make stuff up rather than rely on actual evidence and reasoning because the fact-checkers that scrutinize them won’t ever be read by the majority of people who hear the initial assertions.
Except that Bigelow isn’t a politician like the ones tacitly accused of being spineless opportunists in her movie. She’s supposedly an artist. And not just an artist trying to please and flatter, but supposedly one who’s also trying to provoke and instruct. And it is according to that second goal, self-imposed but also necessitated by the nature of her subject, that her work should be judged. After all, if she thinks her studio partners were brave for funding and distributing the movie, she must have thought there was something curageous in creating it. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t just a movie, it’s brave art in search of hard truths. Just how “brave” it in fact is though, and just how “hard” its truths end up being, is the discussion Bigelow still isn’t willing to have.
When a creator is willing to be so intellectually dishonest while participating in real debates, why should we expect them to be any more honest when creating them in the form of fictional narratives?