It's That Opening

Is Zero Dark Thirty Propaganda?

Does opening with 9-11 make Zero Dark Thirty by definition a propaganda film?

This discussion appears to been kickstarted by Frank Bruni in the Times, who noted in his Sunday column that Zero Dark Thirty, the we-got-bin-Laden movie by the acclaimed Kathryn Bigelow, appears to argue, quite against the known historical record, that torture was crucial to learning OBL's whereabouts. Bruni:

But the movie of the year is also the political conundrum of the year, a far, far cry from the rousing piece of pro-Obama propaganda that some conservatives feared it would be. “Zero Dark Thirty,” which opens in theaters on Dec. 19 and presents itself as a quasi-journalistic account of what really happened, gives primary credit for the killing of Bin Laden to neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations but to one obsessive C.I.A. analyst whose work spans both presidencies. And it presents the kind of torture that Cheney advocated — but that President Obama ended — as something of an information-extracting necessity, repellent but fruitful.

Dexter Filkins, in a New Yorker piece released today, takes note of the problem:

Bigelow maintains that everything in the film is based on first-hand accounts, but the waterboarding scene, which is likely to stir up controversy, appears to have strayed from real life. According to several official sources, including Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the identity of bin Laden’s courier, whose trail led the C.I.A. to the hideout in Pakistan, was not discovered through waterboarding.

Glenn Greenwald is raising a stink about this in his usual prolix way, and so on and so on.

Can I just say that I am equally bothered, and indeed even more bothered, by the fact that the movie opens with 9-11. Real-life voices of people in great distress or about to die. According to reports. I haven't seen the film, so maybe it's handled well, but that decisions seems to make to make the film automatically and definitionally a work of propaganda.

Think about it. Suppose Schindler's List opened with a scene from the Wansee Conference. Or the current Lincoln opened with a scene of slaves being whipped, or a house girl being raped by her master. Or let's say a movie about Hiroshima and Nagasaki opened with Pearl Harbor.

I think in each of those cases nearly all of us would agree that such openings would have been at best beside the point and at worst so heavy-handed as to be offensive. Do American movie-going audiences in 2012 really need to be spoon-fed a justification for the killing of Osama bin Laden? I suppose the filmmakers think they do. Politically, that's a dubious proposition. Aesthetically, it's a cheap one. It makes it a propaganda film. Only propaganda films feel the need to bang audiences over the head with the backstory on why our heroes' actions are justified, whether the heroes in question are Seal Team Six or the Wehrmacht marching into Poland.

I was keenly interesetd in seeing this film, but I have to say this makes me a lot less enthusiastic about the whole enterprise.