Movie goers are being treated to unusually serious cinema these days with two productions about Islamic extremists, both exciting to watch but drawing different critical responses. In the contrast, we have a window into Hollywood and even its relations with the Obama Administration. We also get a window into the Central Intelligence Agency.
One movie portrays the rescue of six American embassy personnel during the 444-day hostage crisis of 1979-81 and the other features the planning and execution of the killing of Osama Bin Laden by May 2011. What is interesting is the critical reaction to the films as well as that of the motion picture industry.
The decisive fact is this: "Argo" fits the Democratic Party line better than "Zero Dark Thirty." It begins with a quick and hostile account of the 1953 military coup that brought the Shah of Iran into full power, citing the CIA's involvement in a plot to remove leftist Premier Mohammad Mossaddegh and install Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled until 1979.
But the movie lacks context, for Soviet troops were occupying Iran following World War II and the USSR was supporting a Communist Party in Iran, a key partner in Mossaddegh's ruling coalition. When that government nationalized British oil fields, the U.S. and Britain first imposed a trade embargo and ultimately backed the coup. "Argo's" disdain for the realities of Cold War politics effectively insulates it from its unflattering portrait of revolutionary Iranian mobs in 1979 demanding the return of the by-then deposed Shah from exile in the United States.
Few will sympathize with the hostage-takers, of course, but their actions are given a patina of respectability by making the United States out to be the unacknowledged villain. Thus, director Ben Affleck may win an Academy Award for this effort, thereby maintaining his Leftist political credentials. Humbly, he cast himself as the CIA agent who planned the remarkable CIA escape plan that had the six Americans who fled from their embassy to Canada's later pass themselves off as movie makers in their harrowing removal to Tehran Airport.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is another story. It had promising beginnings as officials from the Obama Administration reportedly cooperated rather fulsomely in supplying details on how Osama Bin Laden was brought to deadly justice. Had director Kathryn Bigelow stuck to that part of the story, she probably would be in the same Oscar nomination company with Ben Affleck. But she also tells how the information was obtained that enabled the CIA to locate Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
This gets us to the nitty gritty. The opening scenes portray the brutal interrogation methods purportedly used with suspected terrorists at so-called black sites in Turkey and Poland. These scenes, which are not for the faint of heart, include the controversial waterboarding technique, incorrectly described as torture. How anyone can sympathize with men who wantonly murder human beings is beyond me. President Barack Obama is among the squeamish.
Consider this scene: The President's declaration early in his term that he would abandon enhanced interrogation techniques in order to keep America's moral standing in the world is broadcast over television while CIA operatives are piecing together raw intelligence for the purpose of accomplishing what Obama ultimately will preen about after May 2, 2011. Their peril is indicated by the close intervals between their success in securing suspects and information and still more terrorist attacks. (The identity of the agent directing the operation may surprise you.)
Note: I wonder if I'm alone in objecting to the endless and tiresome use of profanity in both films, most frequently the F bomb, by civilians no less than soldiers, by White House and State Department folks as well as those in the CIA. Somehow war films in the old days did not suffer from the absence of profanity.
If anyone was justified in using such language, it was probably Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who reportedly stormed into the White House after aides leaked details of our drone attacks, the identities of our collaborators in Pakistan and Yemen, and confirmation of our involvement in Israel's Stuxnet worm attack on Iranian computers. His short though not sweet speech to them consisted of four words: "Shut the f… up!"
Defending America and Americans is serious business which deserves the political realism that animates "Zero Dark Thirty" and is missing in "Argo." And sensible people like Robert Gates definitely should not "shut up."
ABOUT THE WRITER
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of " Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.