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The best 9/11 movies are actually pro-war propaganda

“Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” offer more pro-war propaganda than introspection.
Photo illustration: A blue and red film reel showing stills from the movies, \"The Hurt Locker\" and \"Zero Dark Thirty\".
"Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Hurt Locker" constitute canon in our cultural memory of the 9/11 landscape.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Lionsgate; Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

Twenty years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, what can we say we’ve learned?

It’s clear that many policies which the U.S. embraced in their wake and once commanded near-consensus in American life, such as nation-building projects and suspending civil liberties to fight terrorism, are now either controversial, unpopular or abandoned. What’s less clear is if we’ve properly reckoned with the true moral weight of our missteps as a country, and adjusted our perception of our innocence accordingly.

With this in mind as the 20th anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11 approached, I decided to revisit two films that have become classics of the era: “The Hurt Locker,” a 2008 movie which follows the wild leader of a bomb disposal squad during his tour in the Iraq War, and “Zero Dark Thirty,” the 2012 film about a CIA agent’s obsessive hunt for Osama bin Laden.

These films are beacons of imperial ignorance that whitewash many of America’s sins in the war on terror.

I chose these two films for a few reasons. They are arguably the most critically acclaimed films of and about the era — both dominated Top 10 lists, were nominated for many high-profile Oscars, and won some, including best picture in the case of “The Hurt Locker.” “The Hurt Locker'' has a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and “Zero Dark Thirty” 91 percent; these numbers reflect a critical consensus that movies rarely garner, a feat all the more remarkable considering the polarizing nature of the subject matter and the ease with which it can alienate critics. And while “Zero Dark Thirty” did receive some criticism for the way it depicted torture, both films appeared to be beloved by many progressives. There is little question that they constitute canon in our cultural memory of the 9/11 landscape.

I thought it worthwhile to revisit these films because artistic depictions of historical events are a central way that the public revisits the past and grapples with its meaning. While artistic works rarely capture policy minutiae, they often outshine nonfiction accounts in their ability to reflect the zeitgeist.

These movies — both made by renowned director-writer pair Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal — troubled me when I saw them initially, and were even more troubling upon a recent watch. They both tell riveting and empathy-inducing stories of American soldiers and CIA agents in the Middle East and South Asia, and are entertaining as hell. They also obscure the horrific consequences of their actions by either vilifying or eliding the very populations that the American forces abused and killed.

These films are beacons of imperial ignorance that whitewash many of America’s sins in the war on terror. They’re set in faraway lands, but they’re all about America — and they refuse to consider the possibility that American power might not be a force of good in the world.

“The Hurt Locker” tells the story of Staff Sgt. William James (played by Jeremy Renner) as he helps lead a U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in the Iraq War in 2004 as he disables bombs and bests Iraqi insurgents. James is a perfect warrior: a singular talent when it comes to disabling explosives; exceptionally strong, yet gentle with his colleagues; a fierce fighter with a soft spot for children; headstrong, but only in the service of others; and dismissive of protocol when it interferes with his unimpeachable moral code. His greatest vice is that he cares too much — we see this when he encourages his unit to take on an overly risky mission after getting worked up over a bombing that kills civilians, and a vulnerable squad member gets injured as a result.

The protagonist is a clear metaphor for the idealized American soldier. James, who looks as corn-fed and boyish as they come, is a composite character inspired in part by Boal’s two-week embed with a bomb disposal unit in 2004, and seems to be a kind of cartoonish amalgam of the finest qualities he saw in some of those whom he followed. Boal’s entire script sounds a similar note of exaggeration; the film is less journalism than propaganda, and the story he wants to tell is a tale of American philanthropy in which the American soldier is a hero and those who resist him are villains.

The reality of the war was far more complex than “The Hurt Locker” would have us believe.

Boal’s decision is difficult to defend, to put it lightly. The Iraq War was a moral atrocity of the highest order: it was a war of aggression predicated on false pretenses and systematic deception of the international community; it was a ruthless nation-building project that involved torturing countless civilians, unleashing brutal mercenary armies on the population, killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, and displaced millions more. It ultimately primed the state for a takeover by the Islamic State terrorist group after the U.S. unceremoniously withdrew. In short, the Iraq War was a horror story for the people of Iraq, who saw their freedom trampled based on careful lies about links to Al Qaeda and so-called weapons of mass destruction.

But in “The Hurt Locker,” the horror story is inverted — it is the Americans who are enduring unimaginable terror. Bigelow wields her considerable skills as a visual storyteller to advance this idea, drawing on heavy use of space exploration aesthetics and horror tropes. When James suits up and trudges toward an explosive, we’re invited to think of him as exploring another planet, mostly devoid of intelligent life and dangerous to humans. The editors of “The Hurt Locker” expressly said they tried to channel Alfred Hitchcock in generating anxiety in the viewer as James deals with defusing explosives that could be detonated by the (always suspicious) locals at any time. The only Iraqis presented as nonthreatening are children and an elderly professor who invites James to stay in his house after being held at gunpoint.

The reality of the war was far more complex than “The Hurt Locker” would have us believe. After the U.S. invasion, Iraq did indeed become a hotbed for terrorist networks which did heinously target civilians as part of their effort to destabilize and discourage the occupation. But there were many, many different kinds of groups in the insurgency spanning different ideologies and ethnic groups, and the overwhelming majority of attacks were directed at U.S. and coalition forces, not civilians or Iraqi security forces. What most of these groups were fighting for was something any American can easily understand — the right to govern their own country.

It’s difficult to dispute that James’ specialty of defusing improvised explosive devices is an ethical one in the scheme of war — his actions cause relatively little harm, and he makes civilians safer. But as we breathe sighs of relief after each of his successes, what’s eclipsed is the question of why the bombs are being laid in the first place. This is to say nothing of the reality that most U.S. soldiers were involved in bloodier business, and often given such expansive rules of engagement for shooting civilians in Iraq that they had cover and incentive to commit war crimes.

“The Hurt Locker” doesn’t enlighten us about the true nature of the Iraq War; instead, it puts blinders on its audience. Perhaps the reason this war story was widely lauded in America is because it affirms the myth that the use of American power abroad is an inherent source of virtue in the world.

On a stylistic level, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a very different movie from “The Hurt Locker.” It’s slower paced, and mostly has the atmospherics of a true crime story. It follows fictional CIA analyst Maya Harris over the course of many years as she leads the manhunt to track down bin Laden and secures the information for a Navy SEAL raid in which he’s killed, an operation reproduced in breathtaking detail in the last half hour of the film.

But in many ways, “Zero Dark Thirty” exists in similar thematic territory to its predecessor. Once again, the depiction of hugely destructive U.S. operations are sanded down and smoothed into something far more pleasant than reality; locals are vilified or erased; and we are encouraged to admire those who have participated in acts that range from questionable to downright abominable.

Harris is another composite character based on research, but again a clumsy one, whose story distracts us from many of the broader complexities and misdeeds of U.S. operations across the globe as it sought to track down bin Laden. Harris is industrious beyond belief, self-sacrificing, constantly worried about protecting the homeland and a brilliant thinker.

In reality, one of the main CIA operatives she was modeled on was so negligent in her duties, and such an unabashed purveyor of lies, that a former colleague of hers said “she should be put on trial and put in jail for what she has done.”

Harris, like the real-life CIA operative she was partially modeled on, is a fan of torture. The filmmakers claimed that they declined to “judge” the CIA’s interrogation program in their depictions of it. In reality, they end up more or less endorsing it. One detainee, disoriented by the mental blows of waterboarding, sleep deprivation and being locked in a coffin, is duped into giving up valuable information; another says he will provide information only to avoid torture. At one point, a top interrogator says “everyone breaks in the end” because “it’s biology.” In reality, torture famously fails to elicit information from many, and often produces disinformation from those subjected to it.

The film implies CIA detainees provided critical information on the courier to bin Laden which eventually led to the raid. In reality, that information did not first come from a CIA detainee. And if Bigelow and Boal really sought to document the the whole situation nonjudgmentally, they might’ve given a single minute of their 2½-hour-long film to documenting the voices in the upper echlelons of the national security establishment that criticized the use of torture as a war crime.

The problems with “Zero Dark Thirty” extend beyond its depictions of torture, which were controversial at the time of release. Harris is meant to be an expert on Pakistan, where she’s stationed for much of the film. Puzzlingly, she and her colleague feed a detainee hummus and tabbouleh — signature Mediterranean dishes that are not typical fare in Pakistan, and a seeming conflation of the Middle East with South Asia. More puzzling still, Pakistanis are shown speaking Arabic in many scenes, a language that is not spoken in the country. “The truth is you don’t understand Pakistan!” an impassioned Harris shouts at a superior at one point. It appears that neither do Bigelow and Boal.

These might appear to be relatively minor slip-ups in the eyes of some, but they’re striking errors that show ignorance of the region and distill broader themes of neocolonial ignorance and introspection found in the substance of the film. Harris, for example, notes after an attempt on her life in Islamabad that “every American in Pakistan is a target”; but the film has virtually nothing to say about the origins of that sentiment, or the thousands of Pakistanis killed by U.S. drone strikes in the country.

The only time torture is discussed critically in the film is in regard to the cost it exacts on those conducting it: The CIA agents check in on each other’s well-being after some torture scenes and encourage each other to take time off when it seems they’re worn down by it. One need not have sympathy for the wicked detainees tied to the Sept. 11 attacks to acknowledge the reality that torture violates international human rights law and that the CIA famously tortured many innocents. The point is, even when depicting the peak of human sadism, the viewer is called to consider the perspective of the torturers, not the ones experiencing it.

My instinct is to believe that the lessons from the 9/11 era were, for many policy elites especially, rather shallow.

“Zero Dark Thirty” presents the war on terror as a precise set of operations overseen by selfless agents who might’ve taken some questionable methods to getting the job done. In reality, the agency’s detainee program was a moral and strategic catastrophe, and the CIA’s role in Pakistan involved, among other things, traumatizing and killing thousands of civilians with a form of aerial warfare that automatically counted all adult males casualties as combatants.

It could be argued that America has been chastened by the consequences of the reckless crusade it launched in response to 9/11. Bush, the author and chief propagandist of the war on terror, left the White House in disgrace. The Iraq War was widely considered a massive failure, and the unending legal deadlocks of Guantanamo Bay stained the country’s global reputation. And in a coda to the failures of the era, America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan after two decades was marked by the Taliban retaking Kabul without even firing a shot.

But my instinct is to believe that the lessons from the 9/11 era were, for many policy elites especially, rather shallow. Iraq is still discussed primarily as a strategic blunder rather than a moral one; the withdrawal from Afghanistan was met with fierce criticism from the mainstream media and the national security establishment. Despite an abundance of evidence that torture doesn’t work, maybe half the country believes it does.

I believe “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” typify the outlooks that make us impervious to learning deeper lessons from these past catastrophes. And in that sense they’re deeply important documents. If we want to realize how badly things went, consider the costs of the war on terror for the world — the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians; the displacement of tens of millions; new legal architecture designed to undermine the rights of a citizen and a human; the expenditure of $8 trillion to violate the sovereignty of dozens of countries — and then think about how strange and self-involved it is to make art that suggests that none of that mattered.