Zero reference to The Colonial Present

Been meaning to post something about Zero Dark Thirty for some time and Oscar-eve seems as good an excuse as any. Even if it’s not an indie film, it has some characteristics of the ‘quality’ or Indiewood end of the spectrum, it seems to me, particularly in its generally dour and low-key approach to the dramatization of the CIA hunt for Bin Laden. I found myself rather torn about the film in several respects. I’m not going to get into the ‘does it justify torture’ debate so much here, as that’s been quite well rehearsed elsewhere. First saw the film the same weekend as Lincoln and was struck by how similar the two are in one central respect: that they’re both pitched primarily as ‘procedurals’, focusing on head-down procedures (of investigation or political manoeuvring) rather than more action-led routines.

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I was also struck by the largely non-triumphalist nature of the climax of ZDT. Although the night-vision green-tinted scenes at the Bin Laden complex have been compared by some to images from a video game – which they do loosely resemble in some ways – the whole exercise creates the impression of rather non-heroic, one-sided slaughter, which I found in its way admirable (pitching it that way, rather than the slaughter itself). This is unusual, for Hollywood, where the preference is to try to find room for the reassertion of more traditional varieties of action-heroics (I’m writing something at the moment on how this process works in three examples: Body of LiesGreen Zone and Bigelow’s previous film, The Hurt Locker).

The real problem I have with the film is the extreme one-sidedness of its general dynamics. We start with sounds of 9/11, which are clearly employed to give an impression of substantial justification to the torture scenes that follow. The main focus on the investigation is then mixed on occasion with inserted dramatizations of other Al Qaeda or AQ-related attacks, which add to the sense of motivation provided to the investigators. But there’s not one jot of anything to suggest that the attackers had any motivation of their own. There wouldn’t be a need to provide something as strong as ‘justification’ in order, at least, to give some suggestion that the people who do such things have agendas of their own that might have some points of legitimacy, even for those who don’t accept their methods. In this respect, the film seems much more firmly in line with the myopia of typical US foreign policy. Sure, it’s based on first-hand accounts, as the opening titles proclaim; but they’re the accounts of only one faction. This might be little more than we should expect from a studio product but I found it rankled to the extent that I spend the latter stages of the film hoping that the assassination mission would fail – a hopeless aspiration, of course, given the known facts (this reminded me of the experience of watching Spielberg’s Munich, in which we’re asked to align ourselves with an Israeli murder squad).

As for the legitimacy of such killings, well… Again, I don’t think one has to be a supporter of Bin Laden or AQ to feel that it had precisely the same degree as legitimacy as would be possessed by an imaginary scenario in which, say, Al Qaeda landed a couple of helicopters on the White House lawn and proceeded to work their way through the building and shoot dead George W. Bush. In other words, none, for any legitimate state. The same goes for the current incumbent’s use of extra-judicial killing by drone.

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For anyone who’d like to fill in the sort of background that doesn’t get even passing reference in ZDT, I’d strongly recommend Derek Gregory’s excellent book, The Colonial Present, the focus of which is on the historical background to contemporary situations in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq. I won’t try to summarise his argument here, beyond the fact that the title, really, says it all: that recent American-led interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and American-supported Israeli activity in the occupied territories are of a piece with a whole colonial history in these regions; that they represent not just an imperial legacy, a hold-over from the past, but in certain respects an active and continued form of colonialism. As Gregory suggests, the relevant phrase is not ‘war on terror’, as supposedly dramatized by films such as ZDT, but the ongoing ‘war of terror’ pursued by the US and Israel, with plenty of complicity on the part of Britain and others. This is the presence that’s markedly absent from Bigelow’s film.

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