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 disputes. 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 bandwidth of our internet 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 journalists also feel the itch to tell us the latest stories, and our dramatists to ensure that their take on them is immortalised on screen. One such filmmaker, Kathryn Bigelow, decided to film her take on the 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 find 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 characters’ methods. Did enhanced interrogation work? Did the end justify the means, even if the end wasn’t met? Especially if the end wasn’t met? Would this have been a necessary military process even if it did work? Uncertainty was integral to the original script, and it was therefore essential that the target of the protagonists’ pursuit remain elusive at the end of the movie.
Unfortunately, real-life caught up to this film’s gruelling production schedule. Osama bin Laden was caught, killed, and disposed of at sea with no monument. This derailed the film’s narrative, especially when you consider it was conceived to reflect all the major real-life developments.
The film’s main character Maya, a CIA analyst played by Jessica Chastain, throughout the film was doggedly pursuing the world’s most wanted man, and had invested all of her resources, and her faith, in enhanced interrogation tactics. A fancy term for torture. At the point where real-life dictated that Osama bin Laden must be caught and killed for the film’s narrative to be complete, the filmmakers had a choice. Continue to have a ripped-straight-from-the-headlines tone, or sabotage the lead character’s story arc. It chose to retain its ripped-straight-from-the-headlines tone.
Throughout Zero Dark Thrity, the narrative is clearly leading Jessica Chastain’s character and her bull-headed arrogance over a cliff. To paper over these cracks, much is added into the film’s second act to try and get her derailed character arc back on track. The information she gleans from torture is inaccurate, and in fact, leads to several operational compromises. The information she gets from creating relationships with her captors (not to say that emotional manipulation isn’t its own form of torture) turns out not just to be accurate, but information they already had, but ignored, because they were so certain that only information gained under duress could be relied upon as accurate.
However, due to the patchwork nature of these scenes being grafted onto the plot after its initial conception, the film’s convoluted and confusing plotting left some audience members feeling they needed a manual and a map to understand its narrative and character progression. Several people, on both sides of the political spectrum, see this film as being pro-torture, and post-release, that became the overriding popular image of the film, for both its supporters and detractors, despite Bigelow’s intentions.
When asked about the films ambiguous final shot – which shows Maya 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, stubbornly finding ambiguities even when real life provides that answer for her.
To make matters worse, in 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 because of the filmmakers’ haste to rush out their own version of recent events, Zero Dark Thirty goes from speculative fact to complete fiction in less than twelve months. Compare this to JFK, a film released twenty-eight years after its subject, the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and its claims are still being debated to this day. Patients, it seems, is a virtue in adapting true events.
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. You may baulk at the idea of anyone using a Hollywood movie as the basis of their opinions on such controversial topics as enhanced interrogation and other aggressive policies in the Middle East, but media like this is one of the key ways western audiences digest world events, a truth that’s been apparent for decades. By being so fast-and-loose with the facts, Kathryn Bigelow is playing a dangerous game with her audience’s perceptions.
Another film that fell foul of changing times, or rather a change in perspective, was American Sniper. Originally a Spielberg film, the biography of Chris Kyle landed on the director’s desk after Kyle’s death in 2013. In Spielberg’s version, 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 named Mustafa.
This hypothetical version was revealed in an interview with American Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall. It’s led to much-unfounded conjecture that this version of the film would have given more humanity to the Middle Eastern side of the drama, while eventual director, Clint Eastwood, made Mustafa nothing more than a suggested threat of background menace. It isn’t hard to see why people thought Speielberg’s version would have been more even-handed. 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 screentime, then you can bet he would have found the humanity in him.
Eastwood’s political alignment to the right, however, had no forbearance on his decision to keep this character from being anything other than an avatar for Islamic aggression, but given the current political climate, you cannot blame people for citing Eastwood’s politics as the reason the film had 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 this original complaint of partisanship has stuck for the simple reason that the character of Mustafa was so insubstantial. He flickers from scene to scene existing only as a cypher 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 rallying around it, using it to justify their intense hatred and patriotic zealotry. 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 (he’s always insisted it was supposed to be a straightforward biography) comes off as pro because he won’t say that the film is against it. It is ravaged in the court of social media just because it tried to tell the unbiased facts of one marine’s life, without condemning the atrocities that serve as its backdrop. 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 views oppose their own.
Perhaps these films should serve as warnings to their contemporaries about making films that dig at fresh wounds. Maybe sensitivity isn’t the only reason that we should give these events more 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.