A decade after having its reputation damaged by the Church Committee and revelations about Cointelpro, the FBI turned to turned to Hollywood. In films like The Untouchables (1987), Mississippi Burning (1988), and The Fugitive (1993), federal agents no longer spy on anti-war-activists or put microphones under Martin Luther King’s bed. On the contrary, they liberate Chicago from the mob, smash the Ku Klux Klan, and help an innocent man clear his name.
Directed by the gifted Johnathan Demme, Silence of the Lambs (1991) is probably the best of the pro-FBI films that came out in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Jodie Foster, who stars as the plucky young Clarice Starling, puts a feminist face on a government agency better known for conservative white men in conservative dark suits. She not only rescues the daughter of a United States Senator from a perverse, wannabee transgender serial killer, she transcends her own working class background, confronts her childhood demons, and lets all the sexist jerks in the J. Edgar Hoover Building know that a new order has come to Washington.
Unfortunately for the 3000 people who died n 9/11, a new order had not come to the FBI. In the 1990s, under the incompetent Louis Freeh, the bureau acted like the same old FBI. They bungled the siege at Waco, managed to turn the Neo-Nazis at Ruby Ridge into sympathetic victims, leaked Richard Jewell’s name to the media after he had been falsely accused of the Olympic Park bombing, and failed to arrest the hijackers who would eventually destroy the World Trade Center.
In Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow tries to do for the CIA what Johnathan Demme did for the FBI in Silence of the Lambs. Bigelow, who had made her own pro-FBI film in 1991, the excellent Point Break, only partly succeeds. Jessica Chastain is an attractive actress, but she’s no Jodie Foster. Where Silence of the Lambs is tightly written and skillfully paced, Zero Dark Thirty is dull, bloated, confusing, frustrating, and overly long. Silence of the Lambs, had not one, but two utterly terrifying villains. With the purely fictional Hannibal Lecter and Jame Gumb, Demme gets to lay it on as thick as he wants, to depict evil in such a broad, vivid, over the top manner that the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe is turning in his grave, not out of frustration, but out of jealousy.
Bigelow, on the other hand, who, apparently, was fed leads by sources within the CIA itself, is writing in chains. Anything she does to play up Osama Bin Laden as an evil mastermind is likely to pale before the real life images of the World Trade Center collapsing onto itself. Any attempt to give us an Arab terrorist as terrifying as the Anglo Saxon Jame Gumb would bring accusations of racism. Compared to Jodie Foster’s interviews with Hannibal Lecter, where she overcomes her fears of white, male domination, Jessica Chastain’s participation in the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” (that’s “torture” for people not in the government or the corporate media) is just dull. Hannibal Lecter is locked up in a glass cage, but his overpowering presence is more than enough to convince us that the word is a dangerous place. When Maya watches a hunky, bearded male CIA operative waterboard a suspected Al Qaeda operative, or lock him up in a box, she’s a mere spectator in a process that looks like simple cruelty, and turns out to be useless anyway. Maya, like Clarice Starling, breaks the case while bonding with a female friend, but after Bin Laden’s location is found, she’s out of the picture. Clarice Starling shoots Jame Gumb herself. Maya watches the Bin Laden raid on TV.
What’s more, in light of Seymour Hersh’s new article in The London Review of Books, we now know that the official narrative about the Bin Laden assassination is every bit as contrived as the official narrative of the Jessica Lynch rescue in 2003. The CIA did not find Osama Bin Laden because a plucky young feminist bulled her way through a sexist male bureaucracy to get to the truth, but because a turncoat Pakistani walked into CIA headquarters to collect a 25 million dollar reward. Back in 2012, Zero Dark Thirty was widely debated over whether or not it was apologizing for torture, but the torture scenes were CIA misdirection. That the CIA used torture was already widely known.
The reason for the misdirection is that Barack Obama’s accounts of Bin Laden’s death were mostly lies. The Bin Laden assassination did not take place under the nose of Pakistani intelligence, but with their reluctant cooperation. What’s more, Obama disregarded the carefully worked-out cover story that would have allowed the Pakistanis to save face. Instead of letting the military take Bin Laden’s cadaver up to the tribal area of Northern Pakistan, where he could have been “discovered” after being killed by a drone, Obama went public with the assassination the day after it happened. Bin Laden probably wasn’t buried at sea, and he certainly didn’t die in a dramatic fire fight while using his wife as a human shield. There was no cache of documents that revealed an ongoing terrorist operation against the United States. By 2011, Bin Laden, whether a prisoner of the Pakistanis or effectively immobilized in his elaborate hideout, was largely out of the loop.
While Zero Dark Thirty does not show Bin Laden grabbing an AK-47 and using his wife as a human shield — the Navy Seals find it still hanging from a wall — it doesn’t show much of anything. Like Clarice Starling’s final confrontation with Jame Gumb, the raid on Bin Laden’s compound takes place in the murky darkness. But it’s crushingly dull. At some point, the viewer wants to say “just kill Bin Laden and get it over with already.” Just about the only thing Bigelow does manage to convey effectively is the now debunked claim of the treasure trove of documents. While the Navy Seals rush to pack up the hard drives, filing cabinets, and VHS cassettes in plastic bags, we’re told that the Pakistanis have scrambled their F16s. It’s probably fiction, but it does not only succeed in building tension, but in convincing us that the Seals found so much information in Abbottabad that they couldn’t get it all out in time.
But if Zero Dark Thirty is a failure as a movie, it does succeed as a bridge between the pro-FBI but liberal and feminist Silence of the Lambs and purely reactionary Lone Survivor and American Sniper. If the SWAT team in Silence of the Lambs is vaguely ridiculous, then the Navy Seals in Zero Dark Thirty are skilled professionals. They will reappear in the mountains of Afghanistan, fighting to survive after a botched raid on a Taliban compound, and then again in the form of the bearded, newly bulked up Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle. If Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling appears at the end of Silence of the Lambs, no longer a trainee but a full-fledged “Special Agent,” then Jessica Chastain’s Maya simply gets on a plane to be flown to a destination of her choice, but one she has not yet decided. The plucky young female FBI agent has established a new order. The plucky young female CIA “targeter” may have found Osama Bin Laden, but there’s no graduation party, no triumph, no final call from Hannibal Lecter indicating more adventures to come. It’s time for her to step aside and let the men take over.