Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’: Another Entry in the Long Tradition of Wartime Propaganda

Here’s the official trailer for Zero Dark Thirty (Hilariously kitschy tagline: And Justice for All), Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the United State’s  hunt for Osama bin Laden.  The script was written by Mark Boal, with whom Bigelow collaborated on 2008’s The Hurt Locker. Both Bigelow and Boal insist that their film is apolitical, but already questions are arising about if two received secret documents on the bin Laden raid from the Obama administration.  They’ve had no comment, beyond a few muted responses along the usual “We have to protect our sources.”

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Boal limited his comments to predictable bromides about heroism and the essential goodness of the Bin Laden mission:

“I’m fascinated by people who dedicate themselves to really difficult and dangerous things for the greater good,” Boal said in a phone interview. “I think they’re heroic and I’m intrigued by them. I’m fascinated by the world they inhabit. I personally want to know how they caught bin Laden. All I can do is hope that it interests other people.”

Judicial Watch, a watchdog group that describes itself as a “conservative, non-partisan educational foundation” requested documentation regarding the film and the filmmakers from the Obama administration via the Freedom of Information Act. Among other things, they discovered that Bigelow and had been granted access to Seal Team operators, intelligence staff and even the CIA planning room where much of the raid’s planning and coordination occurred, all with the approval of the White House.

Hollywood has a long and storied history of cooperation with the military and intelligence communities – both official and unofficial. during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt placed one Lowell Mellett in charge of “government film”. Mellett had headed up the Bureau of Government Reports, essentially an arm of the government in charge of swaying public opinion through what would eventually be recognized as standard public relations techniques. This office was then transformed into the Bureau of Motion Pictures. Despite Roosevelt’s insistence that he wanted no tinkering with the motion picture industry, Mellett later admitted under oath that his role had been to pressure Hollywood into creating war-friendly motion pictures. One of Mellett’s most successful efforts was the coordination of Frank Capra’s film Why We Fight.

In 1954, during the height of the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency’s Office of Policy Coordination fully funded and coordinated the adaptation of George Orwell’s book Animal Farm into an animated film. Production was shifted to the UK to defray costs where the film was created by Halas and Batchelor, an animation company that had previously been employed creating British propaganda films. (Halas and Batchelor artist Harold Whitaker failed to mention the CIA’s involvement In a 2010 interview with  the BBC.)

Fourteen years later came The Green Berets, a heavy-handed “cowboys and Indians” style war film starring John Wayne as a Special Forces Colonel leading a combat mission in the jungles of Vietnam. The script was written by a former Special Forces information officer and produced with the oversight of the U.S. Army, which also loaned the use of Fort Bragg and several military vehicles for the film’s production. Critics despised the film, recognizing it for the naked propaganda it was. Roger Ebert eviscerated it, giving it a rating of zero stars in a review that you can still read on his website. For its part, the public ate the film up: It grossed over three times its budget of $7 million. A song featured in the movie, “The Ballad of the Green Berets” a song performed by a clean-cut, square-jawed Army Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler went on to become a #1 hit in 1966. Here’s a video of Sadler performing the song on the Ed Sullivan show. Sullivan, for his part, was a rabid right-winger who worked closely with colleagues in the anti-communist movement to screen potential guests before they were allowed on his program.

Lately, Hollywood and the government have been a little more upfront about their cozy relationship. Earlier this year filmgoers flocked to theaters to view Act of Valor, an action movie starring real Navy Seals. The Navy openly acknowledged the movie as a recruitment tool and actually required some of their special operators to appear in the movie. Advertisements for the film appeared during televised sporting events, including the Superbowl. The film’s trailer also appeared at the website for the First Person Shooter video game Battlefield 3. (Producers EA Digital Arts have a very cozy relationship with the military, having consulted with real special operators during the production of the War on Terror shoot ’em up Medal of Honor 2010.) The Navy retained the rights to edit the final cut of the film for security concerns. Act of Valor is nominated for a Teen’s Choice 2012 award, by the way.

While some of these films – and games – are very entertaining, it’s important to recognize them for what they are: tools designed to sway opinion in favor of government policies and military operations. When the entertainment industry and military industrial complex join forces, the battlefield becomes your brain.


14 Comments on "Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’: Another Entry in the Long Tradition of Wartime Propaganda"

  1. Matt, 

    You’ve got some good examples of the way the U.S. propaganda machine often operates. We don’t live in an era of posters and cartoons like the ones we see from the world wars, we live in a very sophisticated media environment. One of the reasons that Green Berets is so laughable is that it was a WW2 prop movie made long after the culture had left those blatant arguments behind.

    Act of Valor is interesting, the video game collusion is as appalling as it is a fait accompli, but it comes close to Green Berets in it’s obviousness. The more dangerous messages are the ones less easy to discover; the nauseating simplicity of War Horse leaps to mind. 

    The trickier question is how do you depict warfare and military action without falling into jingoism or recruiting tools? War is by it’s nature a political event, so any approach will seem clearly biased from one point of view or another.

  2. Brian McKeever | Aug 12, 2012 at 1:34 pm |

    It’s also important to note that a big budget antiwar film like Apocalypse Now could NEVER be made today. It simply would not get the financing.

  3. Obviously another good war movie will never be made until the US loses another war.

  4. Greg the Boner | Aug 17, 2012 at 6:37 am |

    Where the fuck is Tom Cruise? 

  5. Have2have | Aug 21, 2012 at 5:16 pm |

    I love documentaries like these, reminds me of the Miami based studio Racontur. Do it!

  6. Filming of “The Green Berets” took place not at Fort Bragg, NC, but at Fort Benning, GA. The Army did heavily support production logistically and Fort Benning facilities (like the post Officer’s Club) and personnel appeared in the film.

  7. I just want to state, as an Army Infantry veteran of OIF (03-04, 05-06), that most veterans hate The Hurt Locker and are really pissed off that the White House gave up sensitive info for Zero Dark Thirty and that they gave the film to the morons who made that piece of filth The Hurt Locker. 

  8. charlieprimero | Aug 25, 2012 at 2:51 pm |

    Good article.

  9. PeachyLogic | Aug 28, 2012 at 1:42 am |

    Should be Oh Dark Thirty.  Just saying…

  10. Bwmmiller | Aug 30, 2012 at 5:40 pm |

    21st Century belongs to the Pan Eurasian alliances who simply illustrated to recent visiting American military personel that they have an effective jet fighter, and by a boast by China that they can put into the air 200 jet fighters for every one the Americans have in the Pacific region. More over, the huge industrial manufacturog complex once alive and well in America has shrivelled to negligable while the Asian reality is a massive build up, convrtible to military force far exceeding the American capability. Even beyond that, China can “man” a larger military faster than Ameirca can. Even after that fact, China exploded the largest Thermonuclear device mankind has ever known, and now possess the rocketry and missiles to deliver such a device anywhere in this world. Beyond that: China has their own, secret, “Space Station(s)” regularly visited with their own rocketry. Outside the American rhelm, China  has electric bullet trains, reactor dependent, not foreign oil dependent, to maintian transportation for workers engaged in weapons production, even with oil embargoes, embargoes that would crush America in days. Want more? Start telling the truth about the unsustainablilty of the rediculous, foreclosed,””Ämerican Dream”” McMansion syndrome against the American reality, a decreasing U.S.dollar PPP, rising oil prices, EROI of the average American arm-pit against his desires.

  11. lol zero dark thirty? as a former army soldier i thought the saying was ” O’Dark thirty”…just sayin

  12. lol zero dark thirty? as a former army soldier i thought the saying was ” O’Dark thirty”…just sayin

  13. It’s so obvious. Where are people’s heads? These tactics work time and time again. We’ll have one of these for Iran soon, I suppose. Not seeing it.

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