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“Zero Dark Thirty”: Touchstone Par Exemplar

January 23, 2013

The film “Zero Dark Thirty” has touched quite a cord in this country, such as with Peter Henne’s post below that responds to my own post further below.  To his credit, he opens up another strand of the wider debate this film has touched off.  My own reflection delves into the torture controversy writ large, as well as the the purpose and role of art in film making form.  Peter uses the latter to widen our view into what this film has to say about civil-military relations in American society.

Peter, I wonder if I could draw you out further on several facets of your observation.  First it would be useful if you could go into more detail about specifically how Karthryn Bigelow and Mark Boal could have depicted the military personnel in their film more accurately.  I take your point that “The Hurt Locker” was riddled with problems in this regard, and not surprisingly complained about widely by military observers.  But while the film spends much more time focused on CIA operatives and analysts, it appears that Zero Dark does a much better job of depicting military personnel and how they do what they do.   After all, the journalist Boal spent legions of hours with Seal Team 6 and military commanders from CENTCOM.

Second, don’t military observers and all of us for that matter need to give filmmakers a break regarding absolute accuracy?  For example, there were numerous films made about the War in Iraq and its aftermath, but only Hurt Locker broke through with the public (and won the Oscar for Best Picture).  It was explicitly non tendentious and largely apolitical, which seems to have accounted for part of its wide appeal.  My point is that it is more important for filmmakers to convey meaning than it is to be 100% realistic or accurate.  There is a general need to avoid being wildly inaccurate in depiction of the military or intelligence agencies, but far important–even for the state of civil-military relations–is what meaning is imparted to viewers.

This often is a bridge too far for we government/military/academic types who tend to be left brain types instead of right brain types, but the purpose of art is to capture beauty and convey meaning as Hurt Locker does as well as Zero Dark.  Concerning the former, viewers left the theater with a greater understanding of the immense mental and emotional struggles that soldiers experience, beyond the danger and physical challenges.  I can’t get into all of this here, but they also left with a deeper sense of the seductive nature of war for some of its combatants.  How compelling it was for the film to end with the protagonist back in Iraq, having left his wife and young baby in the lurch.




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Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey is currently Managing Partner of Geopolicity USA, an overseas development firm. Formerly he was Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS, before which he served in the Obama Administration as a State Department official specializing in NATO and EU relations at the Bureau for Conflict Stabilization Operations. At State he founded and managed the International Stabilization and Peacebuilding Initiative (ISPI), which has over 20 government and international organization partners.

Dr. Stacey is the author of "Integrating Europe" by Oxford University Press and is currently working on a follow-up book entitled "End of the West, Rise of the East?" He has been a guest blogger at The Washington Note and Democracy Arsenal, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at Tulane University and Fordham University, a consultant at the Open Society Institute and the U.S. Institute of Peace, and a visiting scholar at George Washington, Georgetown, and the University of California. He received his PhD from Columbia University.