The Rise of America's own Leni Riefenstahl
Kathryn Bigelow by Columbia Pictures
Dateline: New York, 23 December 2012
I wake up this morning to see (in half disbelief) yet another disgusting trailer for a movie whose images immediately conjure up another ARGO"this time by Kathryn Bigelow who, by all rights, should be getting a special salary from BOTH the Pentagon and the CIA.
Apparently she's come up with another subtly flag waving film, ZERO DARK THIRTY. (http://www.zerodarkthirty-movie.com/). Yes, Bigelow's specialty is to produce effective propaganda in subtle pastel tones: no coarse, loud or glossy elements on her palette. At the official site--or is it a shrine to her supposed artistry?--we're told, breathlessly, and a bit reverentially, that, "Zero Dark Thirty reunites the Oscar winning team of director-producer Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal (THE HURT LOCKER) for the story of history's greatest manhunt (seemingly they never heard of Carlos, "the Jackal")...A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy SEAL"bla bla bla..."
You get the point.
Although the film is not scheduled to open December 19 and may be postponed till early January 2013, the buzz has been for the most part favorable (see below). But hold on. Perversely, as things go in the latter days of the New Rome, for a picture that is unabashedly and mindlessly supportive of imperial criminality, militarism, etc., both sine qua non pillars of ruling class hegemony, the opening of the film already created a huge tempest in a teapot, as summed up on the Wiki,
Opponents of the Obama Administration charged that Zero Dark Thirty was scheduled for an October release just before the November presidential election, so that it would support the reelection of Barack Obama by reminding the public who gave the command to initiate the raid that killed bin Laden...
There's no denying that Obama and the Democrats frequently bragged about ObL's assassination before and during the campaign, so, petty as this whining may sound to some ears, the sociopathic reactionaries--scarcely models of morality-- were not entirely imagining things.
As might be expected from the "respectable diversity of critical opinion" that inhabits the American hologram, that bizarre, incestuous, self-referencing Bubble incapable and unwilling to examine its own depressing reality, the movie reviews have been almost unanimously flattering. After all, for such people, most apparently true believers in the immaculate conception of US foreign policy, historical truth counts for little, and only the exogenous details--intramural gossip, technical factoids, fidelity to a deceitful script, etc.-- merit attention. This point is mordantly made by my colleague Joe Giambrone, editor of the Political Film Blog, in a separate comment on this film, so I'll just ask you to go and read it there.). Meantime, the loyal Wiki:
So far, early reviews of the film have been positive. Richard Corliss' review in Time Magazine states "Zero Dark Thirty is a movie, and a damned fine one" calling it "a police procedural on the grand scale" and "blows Argo out of the water.".
The Hollywood Reporter said of the film, "it could well be the most impressive film Bigelow has made, as well as possibly her most personal." Variety was respectful but not quite as effusive: "The ultra-professional result may be easier to respect than enjoy, but there's no denying its power." The Associated Press reported that early film reviews "revealed that the film features the waterboarding scene while at the same time playing audio of President Barack Obama saying that he does not believe the US should use torture." One reviewer said the waterboarding scene takes up almost the whole first fifteen minutes of the film. The film currently holds a 100% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Which means that Zero Dark despite the noise is just pretentious "24" and "Homeland" hokum writ large, with the more polished bells and whistles that a major Hollywood production usually affords, but most assuredly not much better in artistic fiber or social effect. Given this distressing and rather inevitable fact, why cackle so much, you may ask? My reason is spelled out later, but first let me recognize a few unchanging habits of the movie industry.
Hollywood and the entire infotainment apparatus of this decaying society have long produced propaganda artifacts in the guise of legitimate drama. We did it before WW2 and during WW2 and compulsively during the seemingly endless Cold War. The thing to remember here is that each generation brought to the fore an ever more cynical, more self-conscious, and more refined (or pretentious) product. In instructive ways, the evolution of systemic propaganda has been mirrored closely by the transformation in the way Hollywood has presented social reality and in particular foreign policy. Honoring the jingo tradition, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) was a bloated, dishonest vehicle crammed with good actors (which is a damn shame, don't these people ever ponder what they are lending their talents to?). It made oodles of money. One of its highlights was an apocryphal and brutal "Russian roulette" game in which American prisoners (a zonked out Christopher Walken made a lasting mark with that role) were forced to participate in, to the consequent horror of US audiences, except that, as a rule, the savage horrors were almost uniformly visited on the Vietnamese. No Western journalist ever found a trace of such game, even among those most disposed to falsify things in the service of our national mission, but the damage was done. But the Deer Hunter was old school, coarse in its manipulation techniques ("naturalistic") compared to the simultaneously more refined and cgi-loaded approach used today. Film propaganda today both in script construction and cinematography is far more cartoonish, as befits a more infantilized age, with many Hollywood decision makers eager to please that artistically-poisonous demographic of juvenile males brought up on violent video games.
Despite Cimino's controversial outing (in those days even mainstream some critics used to denounce what they perceived as blatant propaganda, something we rarely see these days), the Vietnam war also elicited a few worthwhile films, including some classics. Coppola's Apocalypse Now remains a tour de force, despite its self-indulgence and multitude of embellishments, and Hal Ashby's Coming Home still resonates with its poetic truth and memorable performances by Jane Fonda, Jon Voight and Bruce Dern, a true mirror to the conflicted age it chronicled. So did Born on the Fourth of July, Viet vet turned-war-resister Ron Kovic's biopic, again with magisterial performances by Tom Cruise and Willem DaFoe; Oliver Stone's Platoon, and Kubrick's Full Metal Jacke t, all fine tales of innocence lost and moral vision regained at great personal cost. That some of the leads, notably Jon Voight and Tom Cruise were airheads, and the former has become a card-carrying rightwing evangelizing lunatic does not detract from such work, although it's a sad commentary on the malleability of actors. So yes, while Hollywood culture always packed a fairly sizable contingent of rightwing jerks and opportunists (the Rambo saga and Red Dawn mined the perennial anticommie chauvinist lode, etc.) the 1970s, at least, presented the public with more balanced and truer visions of our militarism and its horrid consequences around the globe.
Then by the 1980s everything changed. Ronald Reagan, the man who best impersonated the Dorian Grey character of American foreign policy until Obama arrived on the scene, ascended to the throne, and the propaganda levels, primed at the highest levels by a superior snake oil salesman, went from stream to torrent. With imperial meddling again on the rise, Hollywood wasted no time in rolling out suitable product.
Readers who pay attention to such matters may recall the infamous Top Gun (1986), manufactured by Tony Scott, Ridley's brother (both then already in free fall artistically), a film which could be fairly described as a thinly veiled recruitment poster for naval aviators, and the military in general. Unsurprisingly, Top Gun was produced by one of the most abject and mercenary teams in Hollywood history, that of the late, hyper self-indulgent Don Simpson (a man of outsize appetites even by the generous industry standards, and a heavy drug user and partier; a 1998 book by journalist Charles Fleming reported that Simpson's prescription drug expenses were over $60,000 a month at the time of his death), and the notoriously slimy Jerry Bruckheimer, who continues to turn out toxic material to this day. This is the man responsible for much of the creative "militaro-policiac" fungus currently infecting television in the form of endlessly transmuting CSI strains, all differing only in location and cast but sharing the same squalid plot architecture: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, CSI: NY, Without a Trace, Cold Case, and so on. Incidentally, as we all know putrid meat attracts maggots, so in a rotting society artistic bankruptcy assures success. Top Gun, upon a modest $15 million investment would go on to return more than $350 million in box office gold, and the cash register is still clinking. This is the kind of hit that makes men like Bruckheimer believe they are gods. Top Gun was not alone, of course, the Reagan Dark Ages also gave us other films to release our minds from the "Vietnam Syndrome." A previous film, the slightly less insidious An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) had already efficiently transformed the old Cinderella story into a Pentagon fable. And it would get worse.