What if a new film came out about 9/11, “based on a firsthand account of actual events,” that convincingly showed no Jews were in the World Trade Center that fateful morning. The fiery disaster, in fact, was a Zionist/CIA plot to justify launching “The War on Terror”?
Or what about another film “based on true historical events,” that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim, and the drive for gun control paves the way for a jihadist takeover of America?
What about a film leaving the impression that brutal methods of torture, though perhaps morally repugnant, led to the assassination of America’s number one enemy.
The film about torture, however, is a sophisticated production, turned out by the Sony Corporation and a talented director, writer and cast, backed up by reams of expensive research, nominated for five Oscars, and reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in box offices around the world.
The movie, of course, is Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT).
In a way, that film, and others like it, are hijacking our history. I’ll get back to that charge.
Some commentators like the Times’ Roger Cohen have praised ZDT “as a courageous work that is disturbing in the way that art should be.”
Indeed, as befits a work of art, much of the story-line in ZDT is unstated, diffuse. There are a lot of shadowy images, elliptical scenes, muttered exchanges. But it’s difficult to come away from the film without the perception that brutal torture, such as water boarding, played an important role in the CIA’s finding Usama Bin Laden’s personal courier, which in turn led them to the Al Qaeda leader himself.
The problem is, according to a lot of people who should know, that was not the case. The film has been roundly criticized from Human Rights Watch, to prominent American Senators, to a former agent in the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, for giving Americans the erroneous impression that torture played a key role in tracking down and killing Bin Laden.
In fact, when challenged on the film’s accuracy, director Kathryn Bigelow claims a kind of artistic license—as if her critics really don’t get what her craft is all about. “What’s important to remember is it’s a movie and not a documentary…It’s a dramatization of a 10-year manhunt compressed into two-and-a-half hours…There’s a lot of composite characters and it’s an interpretation.”
O.K., just an interpretation. But Bigelow and her publicists try to have it both ways. The film’s trailer breathlessly invites us to “Witness the Biggest Manhunt in History.”
And, as the film begins, we are solemnly informed that it is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.”
But, “It does not say that it is a factual, unembroidered recounting of those events.” explains Roger Cohen, sounding less like the gimlet-eyed columnist and more like attorney for the defense. To bolster his case, Cohen quotes Israeli novelist Amos Oz’s observation that “Facts at times become the dire enemies of truth.’
“Or, put another way,” Cohen explains, “while reality is the raw material journalism attempts to render with accuracy and fairness, it is the raw material that art must transform.”
In other words, directors like Kathryn Bigelow must be given the license to shape and change the facts if necessary, so that her audience can benefit from the film- maker’s memorable take on history.
That’s one argument.