The world we live in is one rife with conflict, not only for resources but for the hearts and minds of the civilians whose safety is used to justify those conflicts. It’s also a world where the turnaround between world event to world exclusive is almost instantaneous. The 24 hour news cycle constantly tests the connections of our technology to its limits. We demand to be kept up to date with the latest news as our interest in each story, no matter how impactful, is fleeting.
It isn’t just us who itch to be fed the latest in international developments; our journalist also feel the itch to tell us the latest stories and our dramatists to ensure their take on them is immortalised in film. One such film maker, Kathryn Bigelow, decided to film her version of the events that led to the assassination of terror boss Osama Bin Laden. The film, called Zero Dark Thirty, after the military code for night time, would show the dehumanising and savage tactics the CIA used to get the leader’s location.
Only that wasn’t the original plan. The original plan was to have a film in which there was a question mark hanging over the character’s methods. Did enhanced interrogation work? Did the end justify the means, even if the end wasn’t met? Would this have been a necessary military process even if it did work?
Unfortunately, real life caught up to this film’s gruelling production schedule. Osama bin Laden was caught, killed, and disposed of with no monument. This derailed film’s narrative, especially when you consider it was conceived to have a ripped-straight-from-the-headlines tone; perhaps even in a reverse pseudo-documentary style. The film had to reflect all the major real life developments, and this was no exception.
This led the movie itself feeling confused. The narrative of the picture is clearly leading Jessica Chastain’s character and her bull-headed arrogance over a cliff. So when the enhanced interrogation techniques she champions actually succeed in bringing the American people a tangible act of vengeance, it seemingly plants the film firmly on one side of the political spectrum. Something that Bigelow never intended.
When asked about the films ambiguous final shot – which shows Chastain shedding tears once her mission is accomplished – Bigelow has said “Maya cries because bin Laden’s death is not an uncomplicated victory, since it leaves us with the national and global question of “Now what?”” Her intention was always to question, never to answer, even when real life tries to provide that answer for her.
Cut to December 2014. A report on the CIA comes out denying that torture had anything to do with the discovery of bin Laden’s whereabouts and that the CIA was lying when they said that it did. So in the haste of film makers to get out their own version of recent events, Zero Dark Thirty has gone from speculative fact to complete fiction in less than twelve months. While the claims of the film JFK, released twenty-eight years after the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, are still up for debate.
What’s more, Zero Dark Thirty’s presence in popular culture now becomes a dangerous source of misleading information. The film’s insistence that it be taken seriously, conjoined with its failure to present an accurate picture, runs the risk of colouring people’s opinions with half-truths. This means that anyone basing their opinion of enhanced interrogation and other aggressive policies in the Middle East, are basing it upon lies.
Another film that fell fowl of changing times, or rather a change in perspective, was American Sniper. Originally a Spielberg film, the biography of Chris Kyle landed on his desk after Kyle’s death in 2013. In Spielberg’s vision the film would not just simply be a portrayal of Chris’ life and service, but of a psychological duel between him and his nemesis, a Syrian sniper called Mustafa.
This hypothetical version was revealed in an interview with American Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall. It’s led to much unfounded conjecture that his version of the film would have given more of a human character to Kyle’s enemy. It isn’t hard to see why. Spielberg’s success is founded upon his ability to add humanity to genre pics. E.T. and Jaws are not about aliens or sharks. They’re about family. If Spielberg was going to give his protagonist an opposite worthy of so much screen time then you can bet he would have found the humanity in him.
The finished film however, wound up being directed by Clint Eastwood. Clint is one of the greatest and most respected directors in Hollywood history. He’s also a staunch Republican and supporter of the armed forces. His version, so the history books will show, has no time to find the enemy’s humanity.
Now, his being aligned on the right has no forbearance on his decision to keep this character from being anything other than an avatar for Islamic aggression. His quest to find the humanity in the enemy led him to make two films out of the Battle of Iwo Jima, one with an American perspective and one with a Japanese perspective. Letters from Iwo Jima, the film centred around the Japanese soldiers, was largely considered the better of the two. But given the current political climate, you cannot blame people for citing Eastwood’s politics for the film having a one sided point of view.
Rather it was a budgetary constraint. Spielberg’s version was to cost £100 million more than Eastwood’s. But it is a complaint that has stuck for the simple reason that the character of Mustafa was nothing more than a ghost. He flickers from scene to scene existing only as a cipher with no motivations, no backstory, and barely any spoken lines of dialogue. He shoots from safety then runs from his pursuers. Kyle always moves forward, Mustafa only back.
Because of this lack of perspective the film has become a magnet for xenophobic bigots trying to justify their intense hatred with patriotic political values. Anyone who is seen discussing the film’s structural weaknesses are then accused of insulting the troops and America itself. This in turn leads to a backlash against the film from the progressive left, who are now abhorring it as a propaganda piece as well as a meandering mess.
So Clint Eastwood, so determined as he was to avoid having his film make any real point about the war, comes off as pro because he won’t say that it is against. It is ravaged in a court of social media just because it tried to tell the unbiased facts of one marine’s life. But in insisting on only one perspective the film lacks balance, structure and has some serious narrative weaknesses, as well as turning into a talisman for right wing conservatives looking to demonise those whose nationalistic views oppose their own.
Perhaps these films should serve as warnings to their contemporaries about making films that dig at fresh wounds. Maybe it is not just sensitivity that demands we give these events distance before we immortalise them in celluloid. Maybe we should only do so when the wounds have healed on both sides, and when the facts have all been made clear. Then we can make films that stand the test of time, that do justice to their subjects, that don’t punish the hubris of their creators and that do not inflame the dangerous passions of populations still mourning their fallen heroes.