Zero Dark Maybe
FEBRUARY 28, 2013 by MICHAEL NOLAN
Sometimes being a libertarian can really get in the way of a good time, regardless of what you think about the war on drugs. Even without running everything I come across in pop culture through a filter of political orthodoxy—politics already pervades our lives enough as it is—some things present me with dilemmas I wouldn’t have to think about if my politics were a little more mainstream.
At present, I’m trying to decide if my Oscar-season catch-up should include finally watching Zero Dark Thirty. Because it’s about the war on terror, it raises questions that, say, the latest Adam Sandler movie wouldn’t (though the latter might make me wonder if waterboarding is really so bad).
I’m reluctant mainly because I’m afraid I might like it too much. I’m as curious as the next guy to see how Seal Team Six finally got their man. It’s just too difficult to set aside all the other men (and women and children) the U.S. government has gotten along the way.
Clearly, stakes aren’t all that high. I’m not going to end the war on terror however I decide. Regardless, where I put my consent matters. I figure if I’m going to be saddled with a conscience, I might as well take possession of it.
In fact, the more I think about Zero Dark Thirty, the more I’m reminded of other movies set during the last “good war.” The first, The Americanization of Emily, is one of the too-rare antiwar movies about WWII (it seems like almost all antiwar movies are about Vietnam, regardless of when they’re set). The following scene is what makes it relevant here:
I can’t get over the point: Draping the deaths of soldiers in talk of patriotism, heroism, self-sacrifice, and the like ensures that another generation of kids is going to meet the same fate. And that people will mostly find a way to be okay with that.
Choosing Zero Dark Thirty over other alternatives runs the risk of allowing myself to participate, however indirectly, in a contemporary version of the same kind of mindset. At least when I try to vegetate in front of a weekend’s worth of basketball, I can mute the TV or change the channel during the relentless onslaught of military recruitment ads.
But there’s also something a bit larger at stake, particularly since the villain we’re talking about in Zero Dark Thirty is unmistakably awful on a world-historical scale. In other words, I’m glad they got him. But do I need to indulge in Hollywood fantasy about it?
And that makes me think of my experience watching Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, also set during WWII. I saw it on September 11, 2009, in Manhattan, so I already had villainy on my mind. On the September 11 that mattered, I’d been a thousand miles away, but I had wanted blood regardless. By 2009, I had come to live in a world where a global network of U.S.-run torture cells, constant domestic surveillance, and a steady stream of drone-fired missiles raining down on rural Afghanistan (and, increasingly, Yemen, Pakistan . . .) were all part of the established norm.
Watching Basterds, I thought, would at least give me a break from thinking about this. Then I came to the climax, in which a packed theater is set on fire while a team of American commandos starts shooting people. The audience around me burst into cheering and applause as the audience onscreen realized what was happening—and that the exits had all been barred.
I knew where they were coming from. The theater onscreen was full of Nazi elites, including Hitler and Goebbels, so maybe calling them people is a stretch. And given the choice between the world we got and the one in the film—that is, one in which WWII ends without the slog to Berlin, and maybe without the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—I would choose the latter in a heartbeat.
But the choice I have instead is about how much more violence I’m willing to accept in the name of vengeance. There’s a gulf between sympathy for the devil and simply not taking the first crucial step—like the one I suggested above, where the enemy stops being a person—down a number of different paths, none of which lead anywhere good. What that evening watching Basterds brought home to me is how easily even justifiable hatred can dissolve the barriers that hold us back from doing, being—or cheering on—otherwise abominable things.
I’ll probably wind up watching Zero Dark Thirty anyway. I can’t help being curious about how the hunt for bin Laden unfolded, even if I’m skeptical that the movie will be any more historically accurate than, say, Argo. But I also can’t help remembering that the U.S. government, while hunting him down, built a surveillance State on the rubble of the Twin Towers. It’s going to take a lot more than a good movie for me to forget now how much less safe we all are because of it.