Hollywood contributions to contemporary American culture have a profound influence upon the moral and ethical value systems of both individuals and groups within the contemporary United States. Movies are an incredibly important and influential component of popular cultural reaching audiences of all demographic characteristics numbering in the tens of millions. Through the structure and form of the films it creates, Hollywood therefore has the ability to impart, reify, design, or otherwise construct the acceptable boundaries of social normativity, moral values, ethical practice, and crucially, military and political aims and the acceptable means through which to achieve them.
The last twenty to thirty years have seen a proliferation of Hollywood films, among other national, cultural products, whose net effect, if not their express and ultimate purpose, is to compel the viewing audience to accept, to agree with, and ultimately to publicly and overtly support the political and military agenda of the United States as a hegemonic and ideological actor in the international political arena. In recent years, several specific movies—including The Hurt Locker, The Kite Runner, The Green Zone, Lone Survivor, Restrepo, The Messenger, American Sniper—have effectively and expertly served US military and political interests by performing as vehicles of state propaganda inducing large segments of the American populace to endorse and support US wars of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Zero Dark Thirty falls firmly within this modern tradition of pro-corporate, pro-state, pro-war, ahistorical, essentializing and propagandising film-making. Specifically, this film has provided depth, context, narrative focus, a highly emotive musical score, punchy dialogue, impressive cinematography and true-to-life (ish) portrayals of individuals involved in the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in order to dramatize one important aspect of the decade-and-a-half long US-led invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The effort involved in dramatizing the extra-judicial assassination of Osama Bin Laden has the effect of obfuscating the express illegality of the mission while at the same time casting the intelligence community—key actors in the costly and destructive US wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq (and Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, and Syria)—as uber-cool action-adventure heroes involved in gripping international, dramatic sagas. These sagas are beautifully, compellingly, and expertly packaged for the viewing audience. They come replete with car chases, gun fights, near-miss explosions, love affairs, passionate romance, and thrilling, high-tech espionage. The audience is drawn into an ahistorical and de-contextualized world in which the mission at hand is immediate, critical, and most important of all, righteous. This myopic value system unfolds for viewing audiences using a subject and minimized indigenous society (in this case a beleaguered society that has been subjected to persistent foreign control and occupation for the last two-hundred years) as set-props and backdrops only. The culture, society, and the indigenous population are no more than staging material set in place to tell a one-sided story: the story of American do-goodery, of ethnic and religious supremacy, of American moral and political rectitude everywhere and all of the time.
In this genre of film—the based on real events, action-adventure, military-politico-dramas—the audience knows at best, one half of a narrative. Only the white, Christian protagonist and his/her allies are provided with more than two-dimensional character depth. The white hero is reflective and thoughtful, intelligent and responsible. The protagonist has a family, a personal history, and is presented as a complete person with all hopes and dreams equivalent to those of the viewing audience. The protagonist makes difficult but ultimately righteous decisions involving life and death. In every situation, the life of the white protagonist or the white comrade is infused with moral and religious rectitude; the lives of the non-white, non-Christian antagonists are expendable and dispensable. In fact, a particular characteristic of this genre of film fictionalizes the manner in which the antagonists themselves callously disregard their own lives and the lives of their families and/or political allies. Choosing death and destruction over life and lawfulness, non-white antagonists embrace the cult of the martyr and prefer death and destruction to life and liberty.
This obvious distinction of action and intent dramatizing the villain’s sociopathic embrace of death and active pursuit of violent martyrdom provides verification for American viewing audiences that the non-white, antagonist, Other has less objective human value than the white protagonist and his/her comrades. This differentiation in form, function, and crucially, in motivation between the American hero and the Arab villain provides the audience with a video record of racial and cultural stratification. This stratification is reified and sustained based upon an active, conceptual vocabulary which contributes to the construction of subjective and largely inflexible frames of collective association and deflective dissociation comprising the Us and Them of contemporary political parlance:
We love our families. They love their cause. We love our God and Saviour. They worship a False Prophet. We create. They destroy. We protect. They defile. We are righteous; they are corrupt. We love life. They love death.
This dichotomous conceptual framing further allows for the construction of deterministic knowledge identifying non-white, non-Christian, non-European groups as the Other, the Alien, the Sub or the Inhuman, the lowest rungs of the racial and cultural ladder. These simplistic, often binary constructions derive from our constructed, deterministic knowledge the Other as decidedly unlike Us, motivated by extremes of action, and a profound disregard for humanity the likes of which We simply cannot fathom. As such, their death and their communal destruction, their social and civil obliteration, their rape and their prolonged and inhumane torture at our hands can be white-washed, contextualized, conditioned, justified, even lauded in our own defence of our political, civil, and military legitimacy. That is to say, the death and destruction of the Other causes us no pause in our construction of Our own vision of Ourselves. We remain righteous and virtuous. We embrace life. Our way of life remains, in our own mind, ultimately moral.
Our wars are righteous. Our murders are justifiable. Our fight is right.
But what do we reveal of ourselves in this process? What does our endless sustenance for war, violence, and death cost us within our individual and collective psyches? Who are we really: Americans, Christians, Republicans, Democrats, citizens of the unipolar, hyper-powerful American Empire in the infancy phase of the twenty-first century?
To quote seminarian, Journalist, Author, Scholar, and Activist, Chris Hedges:
"The culture of war banishes the capacity for pity. It glorifies self-sacrifice and death. It sees pain, ritual humiliation and violence as part of an initiation into manhood …. The culture of war idealizes only the warrior. It belittles those who do not exhibit the warrior’s “manly” virtues. It places a premium on obedience and loyalty. It punishes those who engage in independent thought and demands total conformity. It elevates cruelty and killing to a virtue. This culture, once it infects wider society, destroys all that makes the heights of human civilization and democracy possible. The capacity for empathy, the cultivation of wisdom and understanding, the tolerance and respect for difference and even love are ruthlessly crushed. The innate barbarity that war and violence breed is justified by a saccharine sentimentality about the nation, the flag and a perverted Christianity that blesses its armed crusaders. This sentimentality … masks a terrifying numbness. It fosters an unchecked narcissism. Facts and historical truths, when they do not fit into the mythic vision of the nation and the tribe, are discarded. Dissent becomes treason. All opponents are godless and subhuman. [Hollywood] caters to a deep sickness rippling through our society. It holds up the dangerous belief that we can recover our equilibrium and our lost glory by embracing [the tenets of a new,] American fascism."