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.
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.
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?
That was also true of The Living Daylights, the James Bond film released the previous year. The first in the series to feature Timothy Dalton as Bond, its politics are as much of its time as the Members Only jacket Dalton sports throughout the film. After a memorable opening in Gibraltar, the film charges Bond with helping a KGB agent defect by sneaking him out of Czechoslovakia. The plot convolutions eventually show the real enemy to be not the KGB—in fact, Bond later partners with a top KGB official played by John Rhys Davies—but rogue American arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker).
Kidnapped and taken to an Afghan airbase, Bond escapes after freeing an Afghan local soon revealed to be a Mujahideen leader (Art Malik). Though his men are part of a scheme to sell opium to Whitaker—who will in turn use the profits to finance his arms business—he's otherwise an enlightened despot straight from the British colonial imagination, treating his men well and living in posh surroundings as he plots his next move against the Soviets. Here the Mujahideen prove to be trusty allies to Bond, who responds by helping them against their Soviet enemies, never mind the changing face of the Cold War or his new friends at the KGB. In reality, whatever victories the real-life counterparts of the Mujahideen encountered with Bond's and Rambo's help would prove short-lived, some of them subsequently turning their anger on the West. Connect the dots between movie worlds and it's easy to imagine that some of those cheering the heroes to victory would end up in the interrogation rooms overseen by Zero Dark Thirty's heroine.
While neither Rambo III nor The Living Daylights captures the complexities of their historical moment, they find a way to capture the mood of the time, however accidentally. That's true, too, of the John Landis-directed 1986 comedy Spies Like Us starring Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase. Though an homage to the Bob Hope / Bing Crosby Road To... movies—Hope even has a cameo—the film is filled with references to 1980s politics: A version of the Strategic Defense Initiative figures prominently in the plot and images of Ronald Reagan are everywhere, including a clip of a singing Reagan from the film She's Working Her Way Through College that Chase's character watches at his desk. The film eventually follows Chase and Aykroyd's bumbling spies to the U.S.S.R., but not before making a stop in Afghanistan and falling in with the Mujahideen.
There they pose as doctors thanks to plot convolutions too ridiculous to explain here. Called upon to perform an appendectomy, they fumble in front of the operating table only to watch the patient die before they've had a chance to perform the surgery. When the dead man's Mujahideen soldiers learn of his death, they turn on the film's heroes. It's a weirdly concise, prescient metaphor for the situation at the time and of what was to come: Americans attempt intervene in a situation with underlying causes that predate their arrival, can't solve the problem, then have to face the hostility of those they've disappointed.
The most interesting American film from the era to deal with the war in Afghanistan is also one of the least-seen. Barely released in 1988, The Beast adapts an off-Broadway play by William Mastrosimone about a Soviet tank crew that, after destroying a small village, gets lost in the deserts of Afghanistan and falls prey to a series of Mujahideen attacks. Directed by frequent Kevin Costner collaborator (and future Waterworld director) Kevin Reynolds and set two years into the Soviet Occupation, the film shows a genuine interest in both the awful details of that chapter in Afghan history—the opening village raid includes the wholesale slaughter and a brutal scene in which a villager is run over by the tank—the complexities of the country, and the moral vagaries of war.
A young, relatively slim George Dzundza plays Daskal the tank's sadistic commander. He oversees a green crew that includes the sensitive Konstantin (Jason Patric), who grows to doubt and despise his superior over the course of the film. Steven Bauer co-stars as Taj, a young man who becomes his village's leader after the massacre, reluctantly allying himself with the Mujahideen as he seeks revenge. The film's sympathies lie with the Afghans, but it balances both sides, spending as much time with Taj as he struggles with his leadership roles, and the choices he has to make for his people, as Konstantin as he questions his own alliances. At one point telling his commander "You can't be a good soldier in a rotten war," Konstantin is a young man already worn down by what he's seen. Only a madman, like Daskal, could still think them on the side of right after killing women and children, both he and the film seem to conclude.
"This is done so they will not have to fight the next generation," Masoud tells Rambo, by way of explaining the Soviet practice of killing children and adults alike. As different as the films are, I couldn't help but think of Zero Dark Thirty when I heard that line. In the climactic raid on Osama bin Laden's compound, Bigelow throws in images of the terror-stricken children living in the complex, suggestive of the many casualties on both sides of the conflict escalated by the man on the building's third floor: the lost lives, the shading of morals, the creation of an era defined by terror, and the hard work demanded of anyone hoping to roll back the darkness. The SEALs conducting the raid offer comforting words while herding the children out of the line of fire, but whatever protection they can provide ends with their departure. They face a future as uncertain as the one Rambo's sidekick faced, the one he leaves with only a good luck charm and well wishes before saying goodbye.