‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is the most vile and immoral war film I’ve seen in years

“Revenge of the agonized killers” would have been a more appropriate title. 

Sometime in the late 1960s, Israeli cinema stopped producing heroic war stories – the kind of action or drama movies where the protagonist serves his country, noble against a powerful and cruel enemy. The quantity of other such works of fiction – in literature, for example – dropped as well. Which, when you think about it, is kind of weird for a country that has a war every few years and needs to reinforce its own ethos. Instead, Israeli popular culture started producing a different genre – that of the confessions. Here, the protagonists or story-tellers were usually trying to come to terms with the terrible things they were forced to do to – by their COs, by politicians or by circumstances, but never of their own choice. The genre even earned a name: “shooting and crying. “ It all seemed brave – but it wasn’t, since our heroes never assumed responsibility for their actions. The real perpetrators were others: generals, right-wing radicals, fools – and sometimes it was simply the Arabs’ fault. Sure enough, all those groups didn’t make movies. It was the lefty cultural elites that needed absolution, or at least explanation for the things they did (with much enthusiasm) – usually while continuing to do them. Today I would rather have a right wing that is proud of the occupation than an agonized lefty. You don’t want to do something, don’t do it. In the left-wing protests in recent years you can often hear chants of, “don’t shoot, don’t cry – get out of the territories now,” urging people to take responsibility for their actions.

Now I must say this – in decades of watching Israeli and international war cinema, I don’t remember a film as immoral, vile and self-righteous as Zero Dark Thirty. This narcissistic movie, with all its aesthetic portraits of torture and assassinations, not only enjoys and fetishizes the violence it depicts but also justifies and rationalizes it. It is not – as some more naïve viewers said – a “complicated” or “controversial” way of promoting “a debate” on torture, but the other way around. Torture and assassinations are presented as effective though unpleasant ways of preforming heroic acts. The film completely ignores collateral damage, the innocents who are killed and abused and the inherent abuse of power (and think in that context not just about the acts carried out by the U.S, but also by its allies, in Pakistan for example), which are part of the argument for conducting warfare within a different normative and legal framework. But the problem goes even deeper. Zero Dark Thirty is so self-righteous that it makes the blunt orientalism of The Hurt Locker actually look good. There, the director seemed to have understood that some people like “the action” – but we never saw that kind of emotion in Zero Dark Thirty. After all, no American would like torture or killings. Bigelow’s portrait people at war runs contrary to anything we know about human nature and violence everywhere and at all times. If the director would have shown the sadism and corruption that comes when you cross certain boundaries, then some viewers would have felt uncomfortable, and gone home really thinking or talking about what they saw. But I don’t think the film would have been such a success in such a case. Holywood is giving Kathryn Bigelow prizes because she makes Americans feel good about themselves and the wars they wage.

I am not judging those wars themselves here or even the practices of torture or extra-judicial killings, but rather the way they are told and discussed. When you take ZDT and The Hurt Locker together, you understand that Bigelow actually thinks that in the more than 11 years of wars in three countries, the sole and only victims were Americans. This is the worst kind of propaganda, one which is directed at the bleeding hearts and liberals who seem to enjoy their action flicks with a sauce of “moral dilemmas” and remorse. Be sure – the old style of war films was way more honest and moral because it praised the hero’s actions and therefore assumed at least certain responsibility for them. Naturally, the Arabs are just as dead in both genres.

UPDATE: I watched The Gatekeepers today, and I will post about it later this week.