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December 10, 2012

It's Wrong to Pre-Judge, But on the Other Hand, Zero Dark Thirty Sure Looks Like Total Garbage

I hate to be the kind of person who criticizes a movie without actually seeing it. But apparently I am that kind of person, so I'm going to go with it.

Lots of people, including Glenn Greenwald, are grossed out by Zero Dark Thirty's apparent insinuation that torture was necessary to locate bin Laden. But however that's presented in the movie, I'm even more irritated by this scene, which is the only clip I can find online:

KYLE CHANDLER: Someone just tried to blow up Times Square and you're talking about some facilitator who some detainee seven years ago said MIGHT have been working with al Qaeda?

JESSICA CHASTAIN: He's the key to bin Laden!

CHANDLER: I don't care about bin Laden! You're going to start working on the American al Qaeda cells. Protect the homeland.

CHASTAIN: Bin Laden is the one who keeps telling them to attack the homeland! If it wasn't for him, al Qaeda would still be focused on overseas targets. If you really want to protect the homeland, you need to get bin Laden!

CHANDLER: This guy never met bin Laden!

CHASTAIN: You just want me to nail some low level mullah-cracka-dollah [?] so you can check that box on your resume that says that while you were in Pakistan, you got a "real terrorist." BUT THE TRUTH IS, YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND PAKISTAN, AND YOU DON'T KNOW AL QAEDA! Either give me the team I need to follow this lead, or the other thing you're going to have on your resume is going to be being the first station chief to be called before a congressional committee for subverting the efforts to capture or kill bin Laden!

Maybe the rest of the movie is a sophisticated critique of the worldview of these two characters, especially that of the lead played by Chastain. But in general, giant Hollywood movies aren't sophisticated critiques of their heroes, so I'm guessing that's not what's going on here.

Here's what's wrong with this scene:

Islamist terrorists who attack the U.S. aren't all robots programmed by Osama bin Laden. This isn't Lord of the Rings, and killing bin Laden was never going to be like destroying Sauron, after which all his orcs run away and never bother you again.

There's no question that bin Laden was one of the biggest advocates of attacking "the far enemy," as opposed to U.S. client states in the mideast. But most of the people who've planned attacks against the U.S. had their own agendas, and — both before and after 9/11, including after bin Laden's death — have been perfectly capable of coming up with the concept without him "telling them to attack the homeland."

According to The Black Banners by Ali H. Soufan, Ramsi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, "operated independently [in Afghanistan] and had no desire to be under bin Laden's command." The Far Enemy by Fawaz Gerges says Yousef was a "freelance independent jihadi." Moreover, bin Laden claimed in 1998 that he'd never even met Yousef. Maybe bin Laden was lying; Yousef apparently did get bomb training at a proto-al Qaeda training camp, and there's also no question that bin Laden and Yousef were part of the same networks, which also included Jersey City's famous blind shiekh Omar Abdul Rahman. But there's also no evidence I've ever seen that bin Laden told Yousef to attack the U.S. or could have stopped him if he'd wanted.

The same description in both The Black Banners and The Far Enemy applies to Yousef's uncle, Khalid Sheik Mohammed – and he's the guy who came up with the idea for the 9/11 attacks, not bin Laden. KSM came to bin Laden with the idea because al Qaeda had the money and personnel to execute it.

Then there's Faisal Shahzad, the person who "just tried to blow up Times Square." (The reference to him means this fictionalized scene is supposed to be taking place in May, 2010, just after Shahzad unsuccessfully tried to detonate a car bomb at West 45th and Broadway.)

Shahzad thought bin Laden was totally awesome, and called him the "Saladin of the 21st century crusade." But bin Laden had no connection to the botched attack, and he actually criticized Shahzad when he heard about it. And as with Yousef and KSM, there's no reason to think Shahzad wouldn't have been motivated to attack the U.S. all on his own.

And so sooner or later, Chastain's character is going to look like a gigantic idiot, after another successful terror attack in the U.S. demonstrates that we don't need bin Laden to make people want to kill us. That's because the underlying motivation of terrorists like Yousef, KSM and Shahzad – U.S. foreign policy – hasn't changed.

Also irksome is Chastain's all-caps declaration that "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND PAKISTAN, AND YOU DON'T KNOW AL QAEDA!" In fact, her character clearly herself does not understand Pakistan. Shahzad is a child of the Pakistani elite, and he conceives of himself as an Islamic and Pakistani patriot. His father was an Air Vice Marshal in the Pakistani military, and dealt with the security at Pakistan's main nuclear weapons facility. When the children of your nuclear-armed ally's high-ranking military officers want to murder you, you have bigger problems than some old guy jerking off in Abbottabad.

And that's the worst thing about this scene: maybe the character played by Kyle Chandler is right.

If you're an American and care whether you live or die, your first choice should be to change our foreign policy. But short of that, you should seriously consider whether trying to catch people actually in the United States is a better use of scarce resources than flying heavily armed troops into Pakistan without telling Pakistan about it and then blowing stuff up.

That's because Pakistanis are the same as everyone everywhere on earth: they don't like it when foreigners show up uninvited and start killing people. So now we've generated "seething anger" toward the U.S. among junior officers in the Pakistani military and questions to senior officials about why Pakistan will not "retaliate." Even before the bin Laden raid, according to a high-up Pakistani officer who was concerned by it, "deep in their hearts ... [some of the] troops have sympathies for AQ/Taliban who, in their perception are fighting a holy war against non-Muslims ... These feelings have obviously ... penetrated the rank and file of the Army."

However, even for the few U.S. policymakers intelligent enough to be concerned by this, it would have been essentially impossible to say no to the bin Laden raid. Why? Because people like Chastain's character would scream at you "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND PAKISTAN AND YOU DON'T KNOW AL QAEDA" while knowing little about them themselves, and then threaten to get you investigated by Congress if you resisted. That dynamic is one of the reasons the U.S. engages in so much violence around the world: if you're a politician, wise restraint will often cause you to lose power, all because of people like the heroine of Zero Dark Thirty.

I sure hope I'm right about the movie and didn't write all this for nothing.

(Also, I really hope they don't talk about "the homeland" for real in the echoing corridors of the CIA.)

– Jon Schwarz

Posted at December 10, 2012 09:33 PM

Who's Bin Laden?

Posted by: cemmcs at December 10, 2012 11:07 PM

Who's Bin Laden?

Posted by: cemmcs at December 10, 2012 11:08 PM

I've been having an argument elsewhere with an Obama-lover (the description is not exaggerated) who enthusiastically supports drone strikes and who thinks crippling sanctions on Iran are a great idea, because it might induce those lazy Persians to get off their collective butts and deal with their Tea Party types the way we liberals did in the recent election. That's tough love for you.

So yeah, this country is insane and we're all doomed. The movie, if it is as bad as advertised (no, I haven't seen it and don't plan to) is just reflecting the wider culture. Don't shoot the messenger, Jon. Or if you do, use a drone.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at December 10, 2012 11:19 PM

The Fatherland is the more correct term to use in the halls and corridors of the CIA, IMHO.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at December 10, 2012 11:32 PM

Near Dark was a great movie, but it seems to have been all downhill from there.

Posted by: godoggo at December 11, 2012 12:39 AM

I'm guessing the movie doesn't mention anything about a fake vaccination campaign, or does it?

Posted by: Christian G. at December 11, 2012 06:45 AM

"I sure hope I'm right about the movie and didn't write all this for nothing."

According to the headlines in my newsreader, ZDT is receiving rave reviews -- perhaps it should get an Oscar, they say.

Knowing that, do you think there is even the smallest chance that it isn't awful?

Posted by: Ear at December 11, 2012 07:49 AM

As for the Greenwald column, let's be clear on what happened here:

Liberals are really, really excited about this movie, because it seemingly combines great movie-making, complexity and nuance (in their eyes), and tough-guy OBL ass-kicking. Remember, liberals, more than conservatives, relish these opportunities to show how big and tough they are. They are equally strong and mean, they say, just "smarter." For these reasons, this movie means a LOT to them.

Greenwald has revealed it to be a Dick Cheney wet dream, and this hits too close to the mark for our liberals. This cannot stand.

They don't care that he hasn't seen it. I promise you that they don't. They care because of everything I just said. The fact that he hasn't seen it is has become the big issue, because it gives them a free pass to criticize him while totally avoiding the merits of his arguments, which they don't want to touch with a 10-foot pole. I mean, the fact that Bigelow is channeling Riefenstal practically word for word is astonishing.

Posted by: LorenzoStDuBois at December 11, 2012 12:33 PM

1) My sense is that Jonathan's grandpa the famous historian would be proud of this post.

2)Something I read in a book once:

"There is a time when nothing can be done.
There is a time when something can be done.
There is a time when a great deal can be done."

3)And speaking of time - I liked the tv series where Kyle's character got the newspaper a day early.

4)And speaking of counterfactual fables, my "It's A Wonderful Life: Final Scene" is the first comment at

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at December 11, 2012 12:41 PM

Do we really know for sure the Orcs ran away when Sauron was defeated? It may be necessary to water-board Elrond and Galadriel to discover the Real Truth.

Posted by: Billy Bob Tweed at December 11, 2012 02:16 PM

Mistah etc., I always thought that bible quote would have made a killer slogan for a breakfast cereal commercial.

Posted by: godoggo at December 11, 2012 03:51 PM

Also (inside joke alert): It's a Wonderful Penis!

Posted by: godoggo at December 11, 2012 03:54 PM

I find inane silliness relaxing.

Posted by: godoggo at December 11, 2012 04:47 PM

Hollywood is so fucking reactionary, but people are still in the mindset that if it has boobs and/or violence it must be a radical critique of society. I watched the garbage film Poison Ivy 3 recently and it went pretty strongly with the message that sex = death, the nudity just reinforced that. War movies are the same, people think that violence equals "the horrors of war" and is "anti-war" when people enjoy the violence. But if it doesn't show every soldier as squeaky clean and never swearing it must be anti-war/anti-American. Cloying pandering to the foot-soldiers is also a thing that gets misread, I remember seeing Platoon and thinking "if the lieutenants are so stupid, and the sergeants so smart, why don't they put the sergeants in charge?" Part marketing ploy (most of the audience will relate to the enlisted, if they know someone in the military they are more likely to be enlisted because there's more of them) and part a way of acknowledging that not all things in war go perfect, it's just explaining away mistakes as stupid officers, and freeing the enlisted from all responsibility for their actions. Do you know who else scorned highfalutin officers and thought that an enlisted man was better at leading wars? That's right, Hitler. Always wore the Iron Cross he won in the trenches of WWI and no other medal, to emphasize that he was just simple vice corporal. So I'm doing a Godwin, but I don't care. What I'm saying is that Hollywood is literally Hitler. They're firing up the ovens as we speak

Posted by: blupp at December 11, 2012 08:29 PM

Remember Fred and Ginger? Wonderful old movies. Why doesn't Hollywood make movies like that anymore?
I've always thought that sergeants ran the army.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at December 11, 2012 11:48 PM

There was a made for TV movie "Merlin" that I think applies better. At the end, they turn away from the witch, and she loses power. (This is also a Simpsons episode). If you apply this to LOTR, the state itself is the ring. You could also say state hegemony.

That makes the pundits Gollums. Wouldn't that mean have mercy on his instincts as much as possible while standing a safe distance?

It's more satisfying to stress how cruel and dangerous they are, but it's important to note the pattern, and how efficient they are at using nationalist mystique. That's how the ACLU was marginalized back in the McCarthy era. Obama's propagandist, Axelrod, calls this "enthusiasm."

Until after the assassination, I still believed in surgical strikes. I would have said something about danger, but it would in the end boil down to "My tribe, my side, my ways" and most likely I'd be incoherent, because the participation mystique works by constantly shutting down conscious thought.

I didn't break it in time. I believed in the not-Bush doctrine of smash and grab my dad told me. Years ago I broke it with Israel, and later only this year he seemed to follow along. If he tries a little he can see Netanyahu's policies more or less as "people's sticks." I don't know if he yet concedes it's standard US policy. I didn't mind being cruel myself though! I wish someone pointed out propaganda itself along with chemical warfare, pre-emptive war, drone war and assassination and now torture all survive because they are sold as lesser evils to scary things in the real world. That is their stated purpose.

In the tribal mind that registers as "haha, my side is right because yours is wrong!" I should have been able to see Pakistan is not Iraq, it's not Vietnam. That's a simple fact but who was saying it to me? All I heard was kill! kill terrorists! do it! Even leading up to the strike, I had this feeling like "Fine, you want to kill Osama? Go ahead, you'll see." But I condoned the idea anyway. It's not enough to doubt the expectations, you have see the reasoning and the goal. It's just that fear is hard to find in a world of hegemony, it works counter to the state's interests.

Posted by: Lewis at December 12, 2012 06:11 PM

Getting Bin Laden is his ONLY saving grace so far,IMHO( other than being black, I consider that a MAJORPLUS on the American body politic)(Yes, I realize I'm racist). Obamacare remains to be seen.
Deadeye and his pet goat, Codpiece, those along with Bill Clinton put this nation where WEre at, would NEVER have gotten Bin Laden in ten lifetimes. Bad Shootin' Bill had his chance too, and missed.
Now if Hollywood makes a bullshit movie about the event, then I guess, that's Hollywood. When one sees one's elected officials on C-span and such spouting the same pile, quotes and all---why yes, I feel hopeless and lost.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at December 12, 2012 09:57 PM

Soufan's pre-9/11 al Qaeda investigation was obstructed by the very same CIA. He went on 60 Minutes to talk about his book and believe it or not 60 Minutes couldn't be bothered to find out what happened beyond getting CIA assurance that such talk was absurd and distracted agents from protecting the Homeland.

How does a good faith torture program and decade long hunt for Bin Laden mesh with pre-9/11 obstructed al Qaeda investigations? Is there not a major disconnect here?

Posted by: Mike at December 13, 2012 02:25 AM

It's sad to see Kyle Chandler in this rubbish. I remember him from "Early Edition", one of my favorite TV shows, which ran from 1996-2000. It was about a man who gets the Chicago Sun Times a day early and uses it to save people. And it didn't involve bombing anyone.

Posted by: Faheem at December 13, 2012 12:03 PM

Who knows if bin-Laden was even alive in 2010? Anyone who trusts any statements from the U.S. government needs a check up from the neck up. It's better to follow the (I.F.Stone?) rule of NOT believing anything until they deny it.

Posted by: par4 at December 15, 2012 11:17 AM

Who knows if bin-Laden was even alive in 2010? Anyone who trusts any statements from the U.S. government needs a check up from the neck up. It's better to follow the (I.F.Stone?) rule of NOT believing anything until they deny it.

Posted by: par4 at December 15, 2012 11:17 AM

par4 nails it. 11years is a long, long time to milk the image of a man-monster as the herd was losing interest in the narrative anyhow. Everything restrictive and destructive is in place with barely a whimper or protest, regardless.

Posted by: Rich at December 15, 2012 12:56 PM

par4: Bin Laden's wives sold the story for me. I feel the world would NEVER have heard the wives stories if Bin Laden hadn't been killed. Had he died previously to that time WE still would not have learned much about them, no interviews, no charges or investigations, no complaints from Pakistan concerning that night.
PLUS Hollywood made a movie AND its been on TV so that PROVES its got to be true.

disclaimer: I WAS FOOLED by the Gulf of Tonkin lie enough to enlist, so?????

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