military drama – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 “Depiction is not Endorsement”: Representing Torture in Zero Dark Thirty Tue, 22 Jan 2013 15:00:24 +0000 Zero Dark Thirty has ignited a virtual powder keg of controversy regarding its depictions of the use of torture as a means of getting information during the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Despite complaints that it justifies the use and effectiveness of torture, the film cannot be dismissed so easily.]]> Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has ignited a virtual powder keg of controversy regarding its depictions of the use of torture as a means of getting information during the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. Like Bigelow’s previous, Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty has been received as an important document in helping to provide a popular history of the war on terrorism. In fact, at least one critic has suggested that Zero Dark Thirty “will be the film that defines a decade,” and, judging by box office numbers, audiences appear curious about the film and what it says about this cultural moment.

In making sense of Zero Dark Thirty, it’s worth noting that Bigelow chooses a very narrow frame for telling the story of the bin Laden manhunt. The film opens with a black background while audio from the September 11th attacks plays, a technique that reinforces the film’s authenticity and directly precedes a sequence in which Dan (Jason Clarke) roughly interrogates a suspect, punching him and eventually humiliating him sexually. For the next two hours, the movie focuses almost exclusively on the work of a small group of CIA operatives, particularly Maya (Jessica Chastain), who is introduced to the manhunt during one particularly brutal interrogation scene and who then devotes virtually all of her time and energy to the pursuit of bin Laden. When asked later by the CIA director, Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), what else she’s done since joining the organization, Maya quickly replies, “Nothing. I’ve done nothing else.” Thus, rather than viewing the war on terrorism through the lens of policy or through its effects in the battlegrounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, we get what is essentially a procedural narrative, in which Maya pursues the clues leading to bin Laden.

The debate over the film began weeks before its early January national release when political commentator Glenn Greenwald condemned it (without having seen the film), in large part on the basis of Frank Bruni’s New York Times column. Greenwald worried that the film seemed to assert that coercive techniques such as waterboarding were “crucial, even indispensable” in pursuing bin Laden, when most accounts suggest differently – that these enhanced interrogation techniques often produced incorrect information, an argument that Alex Gibney, director of the investigative documentary, Taxi to the Dark Side, makes in his extended analysis of the film. And under a relatively straightforward cause-effect analysis of the film’s narrative, it’s not too difficult to reach this conclusion. Dan roughly interrogates suspects. Eventually, Maya suggests more subtle forms of coercion. Through these techniques, they get the name of bin Laden’s courier, which eventually allows them to find bin Laden’s compound. Matt Taibbi makes a similar argument, going as far as saying that the film’s genre as a political thriller actually reinforces the justification for torture, suggeting that our expectations of capturing “the big treasure”  lead us to accept the actions of Maya, Dan, and others in the CIA. This affirmative account is, perhaps, reinforced by source bias. Bigelow and Boal were given unusual access to the CIA operatives involved in the case, and the film was made with the material support of the US military (as Chastain mentioned in an interview with Jon Stewart).

Eventually, Bigelow was forced to defend Zero Dark Thirty against many of these complaints, writing an editorial in the Los Angeles Times where she defended the film by stating flatly that “depiction is not endorsement.” In other words, her decision to show the use of torture is not meant to be understood as advocating for it, either morally or strategically. What Bigelow’s argument overlooks, however, is the fact that depiction is, in fact, endorsement, at least to the extent that her film endorses one specific truth about what led to the capture of bin Laden. As Taibbi observes, all of the narrative choices that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal made involve framing how the story is told and are, therefore, endorsing a way of thinking about the bin Laden manhunt. In this sense, Zero Dark Thirty seems to claim authenticity not only through its set design and handheld camera techniques – which tend to augment the film’s documentary “feel” – or through its use of expert testimony, but also narratively, through the storytelling techniques that frame our interpretation of the events leading to bin Laden’s death.

Yet, despite these complaints, Zero Dark Thirty cannot be dismissed so easily. First, due to the film’s extreme focus on the experiences of Maya, many of the popular (or official) narratives about the war on terror are effaced. Elected officials only appear fleetingly on TV sets, their comments often remote from the daily business of the CIA. The triumphant image of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, and others watching from the White House as Seal Team Six completes its mission is absent. The only image of celebration is a brief shot of Maya, and even this image seems to be coded as part of the procedural narrative associated with completing the job. Instead, these scenes seem almost somber in tone. In fact, there is very little sense of resolution at the end of the film. I don’t think the depictions of torture can be ignored, and Bigelow’s defense of the film seems hollow at best. No one is questioning her right to show brutal violence, just the implication that the use of torture produced intelligence that led to bin Laden’s capture. But given that Maya’s pursuit is filled with false starts and failed leads – recall that one prisoner continues to make up false information despite being repeatedly waterboarded – it also resists simply affirming a celebratory narrative about bin Laden’s death. The critiques that label the film as “propaganda” overlook or ignore this complexity and underestimate the interpretive skills of audiences who seek to engage with the film. Thus, rather than dismiss the film, we should instead engage with it and make sense of how it both reflects and challenges dominant discourses about the war on terrorism.


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Army Wives, Safe Soldiers, and Online Smokescreens Mon, 19 Jul 2010 13:00:23 +0000 As everyone else was drooling over the final episodes of LOST, I fully admit that I was focusing on my weekly fix of Lifetime’s Army Wives instead.  I have no shame in this but you can judge me if you must.  I also fully admit that I know only one other person who watches it (thanks MB Haralovich).  Despite its lack of cultural cachet, to me the show continues to illustrate an interesting tension between niche marketing, media convergence, and politically charged topicality.  For decades Lifetime has been the self-declared best stop for middle class to upper middle class white ladies seeking television entertainment, and although rocking a bit of an edge last season (and yes, I’m waiting with bated breath for Project Runway to hit the screen later this summer), they still seem to be playing the same niche card through their stories.  That said, they also seem to be hedging their bets and using newer media to cast an appearance of narrative and brand diversity.

For the past three seasons, Army Wives has projected its white, privileged image—with an abundance of white chicks and officers and a dearth of minorities and enlisted men.  It has also done a fine job of minimizing the apparent threat to or discomfort of the troops/families who have been manning the two American wars for nearly a decade.  Deployments run short.  Telephone conversations are extremely easy to come by.  Special Ops soldiers are on and off of the base (and seemingly home more often than long-haul truckers).  Money might be a little tight, but no big deal.  Child care is never an issue.  Officers’ wives and enlisted men’s wives just rally around each other, become best buds, and help each other out in all circumstances (protocol be damned).   For the most part, images of trauma—emotional or physical—have been done away with quickly (PTSD = a one or two week problem, tortured prisoners aren’t really in that bad of shape, injuries are minor and really just mean that soldiers get to come home sooner, so no worries).  Anything really unfortunate on the show will likely happen to someone who is not a regular and might very likely be an ethnic minority.  For the first three seasons, main characters (constantly deployed) have been spared any extreme trauma.  Its flag waving, soap opera, Little Mary Sunshine quality makes it a fascinating fictionalization of today’s international conflicts and a polar opposite to Stephen Bochco’s short-lived, violent, politically ambivalent Over There.

I have found these narrative patterns somewhat disconcerting (though predictable).  What I find most interesting about Lifetime’s development of the show both on and offline is their use of non-diegetic cast appearances at military spaces (e.g., online PR spots with cast members at VA hospitals, deployment ceremonies, Red Cross events, etc.), integration of country music stars into storylines (e.g. Wynonna, Shelby Lynne, Jack Ingram), giveaway hookups with NASCAR, Avon, and Big Lots, and online spaces developed specifically to bring together real-life army wives.  The show/network seems to illustrate nicely the opportunities available to today’s television bigwigs as they try to hawk their wares.  While the show seems to strongly avoid any gleam of the reality of wartime, the folks at Lifetime are doing a fine job using today’s online opportunities to make an appearance of class diversity and a concern for military families and their realities.  I find this to be one more fascinating example of the ways in which media convergence encourages multiple divergent readings and a widened sense of marketability.  That said, I admit this season—which ends next weekend, I believe—has offered a little more excitement, with divorce (although so far, little concern for money woes and the army wife being booted off of the post) and a traumatic brain injury for one of the main characters (of course the woman).  Next week almost everyone will be shipping off to Afghanistan for a year.  I’ll be waiting excitedly to see how the 2011 army wives deal with their spouses’ absences (and might start a pool regarding how long it takes the husbands to really come home.  Perhaps they are counting on Obama decreasing troop levels to shake up deployments and bring the men back into the main narrative.).


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