Hollywood and the Holy Land: 'Zero Dark Thirty' Isn't the 1st to Play Politics

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Movies' depictions of the U.S.'s relationship to the Islamic world have always been shaped by the political climate of their times. For example: the '80s.

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As the furor over Zero Dark Thirty and its adherence to facts—or failure to adhere to facts—rages on, it's worth remembering that this isn't the first time films have tried to depict the volatile politics of Afghanistan and the surrounding region, and that such attempts are always informed, and their reception shaped, by politics of the era in which they were created. It's as true now for Zero Dark Thirty as it was for a series of films in the 1980s that made none of the claims of journalistic rigor that director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have made.

I saw Zero Dark Thirty in early December, before Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald—without seeing the film—condemned it as work glorifying torture. I didn't think the charge would stick. The film's attitude toward torture remains complicated and unresolved. Bigelow shows in explicit detail the methods used to extract information with an emphasis on the way they dehumanize everyone involved. Jessica Chastain's Maya begins the film looking on in revulsion as she witnesses the brutal interrogation of a prisoner. Later we see her scanning screen after screen of bound, quivering bodies, her eyes deadened by her inability to experience shock anymore. An outright indictment it's not: When, later, torture stops being a readily available option, it's seen by all involved as a hindrance toward gathering information. But it's an open question whether that's the rationale of people who've let the ends justify the means because thinking any other way would make it impossible to live with their choices remains. And that question might look quite different to viewers in the coming decades than it does now, when the controversy has faded into the background and the film itself still remains.

Here are a few lines from a movie, one of considerably less ambiguity: "What you see here are the Mujahideen soldiers," a paternal leader of some guerilla soldier explains to an outsider. "Holy warriors. To us, this war is a holy war. And there is no true death for the Mujahideen, for we have taken our last rights and consider ourselves dead already. To us, death for our land and God is normal." In the scenes leading up to the speech, the film has offered approving images of child soldiers, gun-toting boys still years away from having hair on their chins. Soon, one boy will join the hero in going up against the enemy, an army equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and not averse, the film will show over and over again, to using torture on its captives, both to extract information and for sadistic pleasure.

Connect the dots between movie worlds and it's easy to imagine that some of those cheering Rambo and James Bond to their (probably short-lived) victories would later end up in the interrogation rooms in Zero Dark Thirty.

That may sound like anti-American propaganda, the work of an Islamic fundamentalist filmmaker with an agenda, maybe even one responding to the perceived glorification of torture in Zero Dark Thirty. It's not: The movie is called Rambo III and the words come from the pens of screenwriters Sheldon Lettich (Bloodsport, Double Impact) and Sylvester Stallone (who also stars, though that probably doesn't need to be noted). Released in May of 1988, the third Rambo movie arrived in theaters as Cold War tensions had started to ease and with them any urgency in the United States about the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, the film's setting. Though relatively successful at the box office, the film felt like a relic by the time the Mikhail Gorbachev visited Washington in December of the same year. It largely faded from memory in the years that followed, sometimes recalled after September 11th as that movie where Rambo fought alongside Afghan warlords, an example of how politics sometimes makes strange bedfellows, both in real life and in movies.

The facts are more complicated. Rambo III places words extolling the values of the Mujahideen in the mouth of a character named "Masoud" played by Greek actor Spiros Focás and inspired by Ahmad Shah Massoud, a leader of the Afghan resistance during the Soviet occupation. Afghanistan: Land In Crisis, a documentary included as an extra feature on the Rambo III DVD, reveals that some of the atrocities described by the character—the rape of women, the tossing of children into fires—come verbatim from Massoud's accounts of his wartime experience. After the Soviet pull-out, when covert aid from the U.S. and others on its side of the Iron Curtain dried up and the country descended into the chaos and tribal conflicts, Massoud emerged as a political leader who stood in opposition to the Taliban, dying in a 2001 suicide bombing just two days before the September 11th attacks. Stallone speaks of him reverently on the DVD documentary—which also acknowledges that some of the muhajadeen would go on to join the Taliban, others to fight against them—then loses track of the complexity of the situation when talking about the "unlucky timing" of the film's release: "You find out one day, your enemy is now your friend, and vice versa."

For the sort of films Stallone was making at the time, however, he wasn't wrong. Rambo III trotted out the snarling Russian stereotypes he'd stood up against so successfully in the fourth Rocky movie. Though it's easy, and maybe even right, to view Rambo III as exploiting the war for the purposes of entertainment, an undercurrent of concern about Afghanistan runs throughout the film, even if it's sometimes hard to notice as the machine gun blasts, exploding helicopters, and snarling Soviet soldiers take center stage. Every good guy needs a bad guy, and if the politics of the time offer up an easy target—and with it some allies—why not take advantage of the situation?

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Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based writer and editor who focuses on film and pop culture.

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