Kathryn Bigelow Trolls Zero Dark Thirty Critics

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?

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17 thoughts on “Kathryn Bigelow Trolls Zero Dark Thirty Critics

  1. This isn’t a phenomenon of the upper echelons/politicians. It is something that everyone does in every debate. The Sandy Hook shooting. Election 2012. Any discussion in our culture or even our history has this phenomenon where both sides mischaracterize the other and set up strawman arguments to knock down. In fact, I would argue that intellectual honesty is far more of a rare trait to see in any argument.

    I can’t really fault Kathryn Bigelow for being as intellectually dishonest as everyone else.

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    • I’ll give somewhat on your first point, though I think what’s significant about this and similar instances is that there are three groups: interlocuter 1, interlocuter 2, and general audience.

      This is a case of 1 ingorning 2 and going straight for 3. Yes, that’s quite common, but still unique from normal one to one exchanges, and also, I think, no less troubling because of how common it is.

      Part of the point of the Internet as a digital technology (per its advocates) is to democratize discourse. This is hardly the case.

      And yes, I do fault Bigelow, just like I’d fault anyone for doing something unethical. Especially when they are someone generally regarded as worthy of cultural and social praise.

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  2. There was a day when American troops and intel operators were taught of George Washington, who did not torture, or of his shaming of the British who did. If what I have been able to learn is true, CIA torture made things worse. FBI refused. Bigelow predicates the hunt for Bin Laden on torture. This was not true. Her shrill remonstrance now is a bit precious.

    Bigelow, shut up. You wanted to take artistic licence. Take your lumps now.

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  3. Obviously this is all for Oscar campaigning. The backlash has probably cost the movie several nominations, she’s trying to get back in the good graces of the Academy. I mean, she didn’t bother addressing any of the criticism before the nominations were announced.

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  4. Haven’t seen the film, not sure when I’ll get around to it, but the discussion follows a decidedly familiar path.

    Bigelow has a different and, I think it must be said, likely much more sophisticated concept of artistic “truth” and the role of art and its reception than do most of her critics. She and they therefore talk past each other, while, if tried to say all that she thinks, she might end up both ruining her chances to pursue her art and also ruin the reception of her art. The difference extends to the fact that, for Bigelow and arguably for the audience she is both addressing and seeking to implicate, “brave men and women [giving] their all to keep the country safe and find UBL” is not a morally unambiguous sentiment. Not just Bigelow’s film or op-ed but any honest consideration of the last decade or the last 250 years or the last 500 years or the last 5 – 10,000 years will tend to confirm the vast ambiguities in such a sentiment.

    Bigelow is quite likely aware, however, that the statement will be taken as “unambiguous,” and that her offering it will help to pre-empt charges from the other side of effective treason in her connected acknowledgment that “moral lines” were crossed. How can an assertion that moral lines were crossed be taken as a “morally unambiguous” affirmation? This assertion is obviously self-contradictory. At the same time, it may be the notion that morally very highly ambiguous or simply wrong actions might be converted by patriotic sacrifice into something “morally unambiguous” that produces the morally deeply troubling actions depicted.

    To crib from Paul W Kahn, who has written extensively on this problematic over the last ten years, we love our countries, like our children or our parents or our husbands and wives or our fellow fill-in-the-blanks, because they are ours, not because they are better than someone else’s. This fact seems to be what the pacifist Bigelow addresses, in a manner that re-frames the role of torture and its near variations in the hunt for OBL (& co.) as a question rather than an answer.

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  5. ‘You really can’t handle the truth’ the fact is the first ring of the long chain that led us to Bin Laden, came from aggressive interrogation, of several figures, Quahtani, Slahi, et al, now the reference to Syriana, as a methodology is somewhat amusing, Rubicon had certain similarities
    as with that BBC produced ‘the Grid’. I was initially doubtful of this production, because of the role of FAZ Imagenation, in distributing and funding the film, and their are certain inflammatory
    elements therein, the film it more closely resembles, is the Kingdom, aka CSI Riyadh, about a FBI time, investigating an incident like the 2003-2004 wave, that gave birth to AQAP.

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