Similarly, in Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow offers the thinnest of historical context. The film starts with a black screen and 911 calls from desperate people dying in New York's Twin Towers. It then jumps to the torturing of detainees and CIA interrogators doing the unpleasant work of extracting information to prevent future terrorist attacks.
The Missing Back Story
What's missing is any explanation of how we all got here. The movie might have at least referenced some of that history. In summary:
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration exploited the passions of radical Islam in a conscious strategy to undermine the atheistic Soviet Union, with the CIA printing Korans for distribution in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and the neighboring Soviet provinces.
By spending billions of dollars to sponsor an Islamic jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Reagan administration attracted waves of militants from around the Arab world, including the wealthy Saudi extremist Osama bin Laden who then led bands of non-Afghan jihadis in the fight against the Soviets.
Next, George H.W. Bush's administration joined in rebuffing overtures from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for a withdrawal of Soviet troops and Afghan peace negotiations, to be followed by a coalition government to prevent Afghanistan from descending into political anarchy.
However, senior aides to Bush, including his deputy national security adviser Robert Gates, preferred a triumphalist approach toward Gorbachev's removal of Soviet troops and his offers of compromise. Instead of a unity government, the first Bush administration pressed for a total victory of the CIA-backed Islamists, ultimately leading to years of Afghan chaos and the eventual rise of the Taliban. [See Robert Parry's America's Stolen Narrative.]
The Bush administration's triumphalism also prompted President George H.W. Bush to rebuff Gorbachev's proposals for getting Iraq to withdraw its troops from Kuwait in 1991. Bush instead favored a politically satisfying ground war that included basing American troops in Saudi Arabia, the immediate provocation that made America the new enemy for bin Laden and his Islamic extremists.
Muslims around the world also identified with the plight of the Palestinians who have faced decades of violent mistreatment at the hands of Israel -- with the financial and political backing of the United States.
None of this important history is referenced in Zero Dark Thirty. Like The Hurt Locker, Bigelow's new movie just thrusts Americans into a situation where they are the victims and you get no clue as to why these Muslims keep acting so nutty, including blowing themselves up in suicide attacks.
Thus, there is an implicit racism in Bigelow's depiction of the Muslim world, much like how Gone with the Wind treats white Southerners and African-Americans. By leaving out the outrages of slavery, Gone with the Wind encourages viewers to sympathize with the struggling Confederates.
In Bigelow's movies, by leaving out the context of U.S. imperialist adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, you are invited to identify with the Americans and see Muslims as irrational troublemakers.
This is not to say that Bigelow is a racist. Indeed, her documentary-style presentation of the Abbottabad raid -- avoiding the usual Hollywood pressures to cast everything in a simplistic "good-guy/bad-guy" frame -- would argue against that suspicion. However, she does accept another troubling Hollywood cliche, focusing on the travails of white Americans operating among swarthy and dangerous Muslims.
It was Bigelow's failure to widen the frame of Zero Dark Thirty that ultimately makes it a profoundly depressing movie, sending viewers off into the dark night with no new understanding of the whys behind this bloody struggle.
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