It’s rare that I watch enough movies in a given year to identify a “trend” but this year one stood out. Two of main frontrunners for Best Picture this year—Argo and Zero Dark Thirty—were films about CIA operations. Both films have already been nominated for Golden Globes, and while Argo was the early frontrunner, Zero Dark Thirty has gotten most of the recent talk (they even run the gamut alphabetically).
Of course, it’s silly to extrapolate grand themes from two movies, or event to talk about “trends” in a year’s movies—given the variety of production times for movies, any trends are likely to be coincidental. But what’s interesting about both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty is that, though both were based on real events, they each took creative license to glorify the CIA: Argo minimized the role Canada played in the mission to rescue six hostages from Iran, and Zero Dark Thirty erroneously portrays torture as instrumental to the search for Osama bin Laden.
Argo’s sin is more innocuous (unless you’re Canadian, I guess): By writing the Canadians more or less out of the story, the film raises the odds facing the CIA operatives tasked with the mission. The result is that Argo works essentially as a spy thriller—it doesn’t delve too deeply into the workings of the CIA except as a vehicle for the heroism of Ben Affleck’s character, Tony Mendez. But by turning real events into a traditional Hollywood caper, the film makes the CIA as an institution seem like an organization of action movie heroes.
Zero Dark Thirty is more pernicious, turning something inherently evil like torture into something heroic. It’s not just that the movie shows torture, or even the graphic nature of those scenes—given that waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” methods were employed by the CIA, these scenes could have been profound examinations of their nature and effects. The problem is that the torture scenes are so manipulative. The “characters” being tortured are not even real characters—all the audience knows about them is their name and their guilt. It is simply taken for granted that torture works (despite mountains of evidence to the contrary). To the extent that the long-term harm of torture is explored, it is the harm it does to the torturers—at one point in the film a CIA interrogater quits the field because he’s “seen too many dudes naked.”
In other words, the main effect of the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty is one of the main goals of torture itself: to dehumanize the victim. Even Argo, which on its surface is the more traditional Hollywood film, does more to humanize its antagonists.* But together, the films have the disturbing effect of making global conflicts seem like traditional Hollywood films: The CIA is full of “good guys” and anyone it fights is a “bad guy.” If the CIA makes mistakes, it is because it is overzealous or too dedicated. If any bad guy gets redeemed, it is by renouncing his ways and helping the good guys (the only Muslim who is not a terrorist is Zero Dark Thirty is a CIA officer briefly seen praying in his office, as token as diversity gets).
*Argo is, on the whole, a much fairer film than Zero Dark Thirty. It includes more of a moral spectrum, and includes Muslim characters with conflicting loyalties. It also opens with an extended sequence detailing the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup and its support of the Shah. This information is crucial to understanding the conflict, but it would have been easy to excise the historical context from the movie. In Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, there is no hint that the American government does anything wrong. It even trots out the old lie that “terrorists hate us for our freedom.”
The response to this is that movies are not made to satisfy political agendas, and simply disagreeing with a film’s message does not render that film worthless. Even critics of both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty have generally acknowledged that they are “well-made” films. But this distinction between a film’s technical success and its moral message is the kind of parsing you usually associate with Leni Reiefenstahl and other noted propagandists. And it does not seem that these films are successful in spite of their political message, but because of them. The fact that Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are essentially pieces of pro-CIA propaganda has helped them: People like stories of heroism, and the protagonists of both films are undeniably heroes.
Films that take a different moral perspective on the police state, though, do not meet this warm welcome. Two such films were released this year: Craig Zobel’s Compliance and Ken Burns’ The Central Park Five. If you haven’t seen them, you are not alone: They combined to gross about $500,000.* To my knowledge, neither was released outside of New York City.
*Zero Dark Thirty has not even been widely released yet, but already surpassed that total. Argo has grossed $160 million to date.
There are many reasons for this: The Central Park Five is a documentary, and documentaries, with rare exceptions like March of the Penguins or Fahrenheit 9/11, never do blockbuster numbers. Compliance had no big stars in its cast or crew. But, like Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, both films were based on real events, and though neither was about the CIA or al Qaeda, both felt particularly relevant to the War on Terror.
The Central Park Five was largely a movie about interrogation. Centering on the five teenagers who were wrongly convicted of a brutal rape in 1989, the film examines the question of why these boys would each confess to a crime they didn’t commit. They were interrogated by the NYPD, not the CIA, so there was no torture or “enhanced interrogation” or even any allegations of physical abuse. But the old-fashioned methods of intimidation and deception were enough to get five boys to manufacture stories that sent them to prison. The documentary features the actual footage of the interrogations, which is far more powerful than any of the interrogation scenes in Zero Dark Thirty.
Yet it is impossible to watch the scenes in the latter film without thinking of the kids in The Central Park Five. The interrogations have all the same features—suspects with dead looks in their eyes, impatient interrogators demanding answers the suspects obviously don’t have, stories manufactured just to end the process. The central difference is that, in Zero Dark Thirty, the guilt of the suspects and the effectiveness of the methods are presumed, so none of it seems problematic. But watching the real thing in the documentary, you know better.
Compliance also centers on a kind of interrogation, though the moral implications of that film go even further. Instead of being questioned by the CIA or the police, a young woman is held by her boss, who is acting on orders from a voice on the phone that claims to be a police officer. Based on a series of real incidents, the movie investigates not just the nature of abuse and acquiescence, but also the nature of authority. Where The Central Park Five pokes giant holes in the idea of the police’s moral authority, Compliance actually inverts it, and shows how even good people can do horrible things when someone else tells them it’s OK.
Both The Central Park Five and Compliance are difficult films to watch. They make you feel queasy and complicit, and both have faced controversy and criticism. But this is what makes them not only great and “well-made” movies, but profoundly important films. Instead of simply reaffirming our faith in the status quo by telling us the CIA will hunt down bad guys and save us and do whatever it takes even if sometimes it makes mistakes, they raise complicated questions about our personal behavior and our public institutions. This makes them incredibly successful as works of art, but total failures as pieces of propaganda. Which would you rather watch?