Other than maybe trailer reviews, there’s no lower form of film criticism than pre-judging movies based on their premises. So forgive me for now indulging in that low enterprise for what I think is a fairly extreme case of a misbegotten enterprise.
From what I understand, Kathryn Bigelow has been developing a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden since well before his actual capture and subsequent execution. Had she completed the film at some point before those events, it’s easy to imagine Zero Dark Thirty (or whatever the movie would have been called) as a Hurt Locker-esque exercise in politically ambivalent military drama, a meticulous detailing of the hunt for an elusive, never-seen ghost. But that prospect is long gone. Now, Zero Dark Thirty will tell the story of how special forces were finally able to nab Public Enemy No. 1, with Bigelow’s typically thorough sense of verisimilitude (already showcased in Hurt) aided by unprecedented levels of access to previously confidential materials.
I have no doubt that Zero Dark Thirty will avoid chest-thumping and flag-waving in much the same way that Hurt stuck doggedly to a grunt’s-eye-view of the Iraq War. But no measure of depoliticization can alter the basic facts of the context of Zero Dark Thirty‘s release. Though the film itself doesn’t go wide until two days after the 2012 US presidential election, its mere existence – as well as its sure-to-be extensive ad campaign, will serve as a constant reminder of Obama’s unambiguous military triumph, the one victory he can claim that Republicans are more or less completely defenseless against.
That alone is not the issue. What’s troubling about the prospect of a bin Laden-themed thriller released in the heat of an election year is that it will serve to obfuscate what should be he genuine narrative of Obama’s military strategy: his use of unmanned drones to seek out and kill targets around the world, even if those targets happen to be American citizens. In a great piece that uses excerpts from Daniel Klaidman’s book Kill or Capture, The Nation‘s Steve Coll argues that the book’s title phrase is actually a misnomer, given
…the evidence in Klaidman’s narrative suggesting that the Obama Administration leans toward killing terrorism suspects because it does not believe it has a politically attractive way to put them on trial. Federal criminal trials of terrorist suspects draw howls of protest from many Republicans, even though the George W. Bush Administration successfully prosecuted a number of high-profile terrorists in federal court. Military commissions, the Obama Administration’s reluctantly endorsed best-of-the-bad alternative to federal trials, are unpopular with civil-rights activists and European allies, for good reason, because of their relatively weak protections for defendants.
That Obama actually has a worse record than Bush on dealing with terror suspects is bad enough. That a natural filmmaker like Bigelow has been aided by the Obama administration in helping to make her government appear tough – but not illegally or unethically so – on known terrorists and enemies of the state is doubly unfortunate. I’d love nothing more than to be wrong; I’d love for Zero Dark Thirty to contain cutting insights into the nature of military decision-making and the undermining of international human rights. But, if anything, Bigelow’s filmography suggests she’ll tell the story as “straight” as possible, and in doing so, I fear she’s been made an unwitting, or maybe even willing, puppet of an administration whose methods of dealing with international terrorism are increasingly unsound, to put it mildly.