Thursday, January 31, 2013

An Introspective on Zero Dark Thirty
By Anthony Servante

Playing at a theater near you

            My girlfriend called and woke me up. We were up pretty late on September 10, 2001 at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, watching a rare appearance of the Rock band Savatage. So I had hoped to sleep in, but I answered the phone anyway.
            “They attacked New York,” she said.
            I didn’t understand. But the urgency in her voice made me listen.
            “Turn on the TV and call me back.” She hung up.
            It was on all the channels. The replays. The planes flying into the Towers. The smoke. The word Terrorist.
            And so it began. The media coverage of the biggest attack on American soil, not just on Americans like at Pearl Harbor, but on American soil.

On the TV

            I phoned in to work and told my staff to take the next few days off, that I’ll email everyone when to return. And I glued my ass to the sofa and watched the replays over and over. Until it became surreal. That October the USA began bombing Afghanistan. The next week the threats of further possible attacks were announced. Then the Anthrax scare. And everywhere there were searches. My girlfriend stopped carrying her bag because she would constantly be stopped and searched. At the movies they added a warning before the trailers about what to do in case of an attack.
            Then the number was announced: 3000 dead.
            And what nobody wanted to talk about was when was Hollywood going to make a movie about 9/11? Oh, there were a few jokers who broached the subject, but they were shushed by society saying this was not the time. However, five years after the attack, the movie United 93 (2006) was released. People were angry. I remember the discussion online condemning the film’s poor taste. I saw it. It was well made. It told the story of the heroes on United 93 in a non-heroic way. It wasn’t the John Wayne in the Green Berets approach; it was in good taste, perhaps a bit too laid back. But not enough people saw it to render a consensus on the movie. I offered to pay the admission price for anyone who wanted to see it. No one took me up. Later that year World Trade Center by Oliver Stone was released. It fared better, mainly because it was the John Wayne heroics people wanted to see. In the span of a year, public opinion had started to shift, from denial to mild acceptance. It was ok to dramatize 9/11.

Available on DVD

            On TV and film Middle-Eastern actors began to find work. They were hired to portray the Terrorists. And the innocent Muslims mistaken for terrorists. It took Blacks decades to finally find work in Hollywood. Julius “Nipsey” Russell joked how Black activists were complaining in the early ‘60s about the lack of “Negroes” on TV. His punchline was, “There are plenty of Negroes on TV. Don’t the activists watch Basketball?” Well, the Arab actors got their presence on TV and film in a matter of five years thanks to 9/11. That’s not a criticism but an observation. Latinos are still struggling for some presence (no, Chico and the Man and the George Lopez show don’t count, sorry, but that’s a different article).

Nipsey Russell

            And in 2010 a comedy about terrorists was released with an all Middle-Eastern starring cast. It was called Four Lions. It tracked four bumbling terrorists who prepare to attack a target to rival 9/11. It was a funny movie. At the end you are made to feel sorry for the terrorists who are in over their heads. There is one humorous scene where a terrorist hides out in an Arab restaurant. The police enter the joint and take down the owner because he looks more like a terrorist than the actual bomber seated at a table pretending to be a customer. Again, we get back to the actors hired to play terrorists and the Middle-Easterners mistaken for terrorists.

4 wacky terrorists

            Hollywood had added a new presence to filmdom. The media had accepted a new culture into TV-land. But there was still the matter of 9/11. The heroic movies were wearing thin. Terrorists were now humanized. Which gave the movie-making industry nowhere to go.
            Until we caught Osama bin Laden. And Hollywood combined the heroics with the humanization to make Zero Dark Thirty, nominated for five academy awards, including Best Picture of the Year. Hollywood had its ending—the death of bin Laden. Its hero—Maya, a CIA operative played by Jessica Chastain, nominated for Best Actress. And yes, it also had real Middle-Eastern actors as the good guys.

Is an Oscar next?

            After 9/11, bin Laden sent out that first tape to the media, boasting how Americans were trembling at the attack and living in fear of the al-Qaeda. I remember Garry Trudeau mocking this assertion in his Doonesbury strip. For many Americans, life returned to normal the next day. School resumed. I even called back my staff to work after only one day. I had them make ribbons with the red white and blue and to wear them until further notice. We then attended a church service (voluntary—as two of our staff were Muslim, but they did come to be with their friends and co-workers) and afterwards I treated to lunch. While eating, street vendors entered the Peruvian eatery and sold little US flags for five dollars a pop and others sold nicer looking ribbons than the ones we made. Every vendor sold out their entire ware. Capitalism was in full swing. No one was trembling with fear. Patriotism was thick in the air. There were more flags on the street than Lakers banners during the playoffs in Los Angeles.

Patriotism not fear

          Zero Dark Thirty was closure. Finally. I know I wept. Finally. Years after all those flags had grown tattered from wear and the patriotism was muted by the elusive target that President W Bush promised to bring to justice, there was no closure. But Bush’s role in the capture is prominent in the early part of the film as the torture and degradation of the “detainees” reveal relevant information that will lead to bin Laden’s downfall. Combined with President Obama’s contribution to an intelligence gathering without detainee input, the W Bush intel sealed Osama’s fate. I haven’t seen such a joining of extremes to reach a positive outcome since the New Testament was added to the Old Testament. The film is brilliant detective work, and the villain is found. Finally.

            But this investigation had been going on since 2002, during the years when people were refusing to see United 93, while saying it was too soon for a movie about 9/11. There were about four people in attendance when I saw United 93 and about two thirds of the theater was full for Zero Dark Thirty. Finally, it was okay to see a movie about 9/11 that wasn’t patriotic or propagandistic. It was a detective story. A true story. People didn’t wave little flags or wear ribbons. They ate popcorn and drank sodas and munched on nachos. I had a hot dog myself. But when Maya cried at the end, so did I. Because it was over. 3000 victims avenged. A Best Picture nomination. An Arab presence in Hollywood. Maybe now people can go see United 93 without guilt. Sorry, but I’m not paying your admission this time. I can’t afford that many tickets.

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