Zero Dark Thirty: I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit

“What time are we going on the raid?”
“Zero Dark Thirty, bro.”
“You are such a tool.”

These are my unfair thoughts of Zero Dark Thirty, a movie I have not seen. A movie I am not against. A movie I will see when I get the chance.

Zero Dark Thirty has already been the subject of skepticism and pre-emptive statements from government officials. Besides the inaccurate depictions of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and their futility, there are a number of other things that worry me about Zero Dark Thirty, a tightly shot, beautifully cast, suspenseful punctuation mark to close ten-plus years of real drama, neatly packaged in an easily digestible 160 minutes.

I go to the movies almost every weekend, and I’ve seen the various trailers for Zero Dark Thirty at least a half dozen times. Like any good Hollywood customer, my body has been trained to respond to the cues I’ve been fed. The eerie music, the fading cuts, the crescendoing sounds leading to a quiet scene of night vision-fueled monochromatic green, showing what I know to be the OBL raid, what I assume to be one of the final scenes of the movie.

The trailer got me pumped up for a movie I never really wanted to see, a movie that will undoubtedly become known by the American public as the definitive story of the ‘Global War on Terror.’ A movie that was originally being written as the failure of that endeavor, and was pretty much completely re-written after the OBL raid as a thriller.

You know, to reflect victory.

I’m sure that it’s going to be a great, fun movie. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to make me anxious, and like Kathryn Bigelow did in The Hurt Locker, it will probably make me feel things that I’ve felt before. Fear, tension, frustration, anxiety, and maybe relief. I’ll probably leave the theater with my chest out, proud to be an American!

In fairness, I liked The Hurt Locker. I thought it was a film that captured the “feel” of being an American soldier on an Iraqi street better than anything else I’ve seen. The scene of the main character overwhelmed by the colors, choices, and ultimate insignificance of the cereal aisle resonated with me and many other veterans I know as a snapshot of “what it’s like” to come back from war. I forgave the movie’s caricature of American soldiers and the details of uniforms and equipment as trivial and insider knowledge that just wasn’t that important. It was a movie, after all. Not a documentary.

Over time though, my thoughts on The Hurt Locker have changed. Because of the film’s success (it won Best Picture in 2010), it became the de-facto Iraq War movie. When I was still in college, people would respond with “Oh, I’ve seen The Hurt Locker” upon meeting me and learning that I was in the Army and had deployed to Iraq. The fact that they’ve seen The Hurt Locker was their way of connecting with me, to let me know that they understood what it must have been like. And that is a little unnerving.

It’s no fault of theirs, though. As a culture, we learn from movies. Most of my imagery of the Vietnam War comes from movies; Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon. I’m sure those are gross characterizations of “what it was like.” I’ve gone further and read about the war, but the images from the movies still color what I learn.

A successful movie based somewhat on reality will become the reality for those who see it. There is already so much buzz surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, it will undoubtedly be successful. This story will become the historical record. Not just for Americans, but for people across the world who will see it and accept it as the way “it” happened.

So here’s why I’m a little concerned:

For those who don’t know, “Zero Dark Thirty” is military vernacular for extremely late at night or extremely early in the morning, a time when it will almost certainly be dark. It’s one of those military terms that is overused by gung-ho new recruits during basic training and discarded by more weathered troops because of how lame it is. Like “hooah, “squared-away,” “get some,” and “hurt locker” (a term that I never even heard until it was the title of the movie).

It means you've been fooled.
It means you’ve been fooled.

To the general public, it sounds cool and ominous. I’m sure that one of the screenwriters came across the term during time spent with US troops, and scribbled it down in a little notebook. I’d be curious to know what the original title was going to be, before the successful OBL raid, when the movie was about the failed manhunt for OBL. But this is the crux of what bothers me about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s work. They take something mysterious to the public, like a piece of jargon, and then sell it to the public to satisfy that craving for something authentic. A piece of the war that a tiny few actually experienced. The title is just the icing. The film is the cake. It feels like they are taking something inside, controversial, and complicated, producing it for general consumption with beautiful stars and effects, and packaging it as the legit, authoritative experience.

Only it’s not.

It’s exploitative, voyeuristic, and pornographic.

Maybe I am off here, but there is something that rubs me the wrong way about a journalist who on the one hand writes a story that needed to be written – The Kill Team in Afghanistan exposé – and then on the other hand writes a couple of films that tell a caricatured version of war that is marketed as the authentic story. Wearing the serious journalist hat in the morning, exposing atrocities of the Army, and then wearing the Hollywood screenwriter hat in the evening, making big money telling hooah stories about war.

Of course, the filmmakers can always deflect any criticism by saying “It’s a movie, not a documentary” which is true. But that ignores the reality of how it will be consumed – how they know it will be marketed and consumed. That, to me, is irresponsible.

I’m not boycotting Zero Dark Thirty. I’m actually looking forward to seeing it and I’ll see it when I get the chance. But I won’t accept it as anything but a fantasy.

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Black Swan, The Hurt Locker, and the strange intersection of ballerinas and soldiers

A little over a year ago I developed a little obsession with the ballet. I had just seen Black Swan, and left the theater in downtown London wanting to know more about the ballet and the lives of the dancers. I understood that the film was a work of fiction and overly dramatized, but I was drawn to the psychological drama, the monastic dedication to the craft, and the apparent isolation felt by the dancers. I was excited to learn more about the ballet, but couldn’t help but think that Black Swan might be to (some) dancers as The Hurt Locker was to (some) soldiers. That is, an overly dramatic account of a poorly understood segment of the population.

I started to look up reviews of Black Swan, particularly from dancers. Almost universally, dancers disliked the film for similar reasons some soldiers disliked The Hurt Locker: emphasizing popular stereotypes (aggressive, reckless soldier / psychologically distraught, anorexic dancer), errors in the details (wrong uniforms, unlikely TTPs / poor dancing, “ballerina-as-victim” motif). Both movies were critically acclaimed, and the attention that they received because of the Academy Awards raised the conversation concerning each of the films (The Hurt Locker won Best Picture in 2009 and Natalie Portman won Best Actress in 2010). Soldiers and veterans interviewed for whatever reason were often asked their opinion of The Hurt Locker. And some prominent veterans strongly raised their voice in opposition to the film. Dancers interviewed in newspapers and on morning television shows were often ambushed with the question of how they found Black Swan. I can only imagine what it must have been like for a dancer meeting someone at a party. “What did you think of Black Swan” probably is to dancers as “Did you kill anyone” is to veterans – the follow up question to learning ones’ unique profession.

Interested, I began to dig deeper. I saw the parallels of ballerinas and soldiers – especially infantrymen. A lot of my tougher friends who would be turned off by the ballet by default might not understand the athleticism required to dance. I was certainly oblivious to it. There was a scene in Black Swan, thought, that clicked for me. It was a montage scene where Nina (Portman) was preparing for her role, dancing, and at one point laying on an examination table being assisted by a doctor. Then, there was a scene of her taking a break, sipping water at a fountain and refilling her water bottle. It was at that point that ballet stopped being this airy, flirty thing to me and became a tough discipline that requires hard work and constant attention. It reminded me of so many sessions at the gym, early morning runs, or finishing a foot march and going straight to my canteen, trying to replenish myself before stepping off again.

Since I was in London, I signed up for the Royal Ballet’s ‘student standby’ program for students, which provides discount ballet tickets for students. I went to the ballet as often as I could, and began reading about it in newspapers and blogs. I looked for memoirs by dancers, finding Winter Season by Toni Bentley. Reading it, I made notes on the parallels:

“During the performance, things are cancelled, added or rearranged, according to the casualty level of the performance. If a dancer is injured, the ballet must be re-rehearsed for the understudy…” p. 32 (The mission must be accomplished, succession of command – PL, PSG, WSL, etc.)

“I saw Raging Bull yesterday and of course thought of the tragic sadness and frailty of those whose life is based on they physical – fighters and dancers.” p. 49

“But too often, meeting an ‘outside’ person involves the usual cross-examination: Where are you from? How long have you been dancing? What’s it like working with Balanchine? What did you dance tonight? We have a lot of jokes about pre-recording our answers. Of course people are curious (they’d better be!). We are unique, yet on a human-to-human level, this is very dull and finite in possibility. p. 55 (“What it like over there? Do you have to go back? No? Thank god. Did you ever kill anyone?)

“If you rehearse sloppy, you will dance sloppy. You rehearse how you will do it.” p. 60 (Train as you fight)

I exchanged emails with the author about these strange parallels. She, of course, demurred to the idea. Anytime someone on the “outside” compares their profession to that of soldiers or their arena as a battlefield or war zone, they attract the ire of veterans groups and political commentators (see Antre Rolle of the New York Giants, for example). As an “insider,” though, it is more appropriate, or at least more socially acceptable for me to make these kinds of connections.

On a physical level, I’m struck at importance of feet in both crafts. Dancers and soldiers alike spend a great deal of time finding the perfect shoe/boot and perform superstitious rituals to make their footwear fit as perfectly as possible. Dancers rough up the bottoms of their dance shoes, soldiers soak boots in water to break them in. Underneath, feet are rubbed, blistered, callused, and torn apart.

I’m not the only one who has made these connections. A new friend, Roman Baca, served as a Marine in Fallujah and is the founder of Exit 12 Dance Company. He’s a fellow with The Mission Continues and recently went back to Iraq to convene a dance workshop.

What this all tells me is that there is something here. There are these two communities out there, dancers and soldiers, who represent a tiny portion of the overall population, hold a unique and grossly misunderstood profession that is wildly stereotyped and exploited in the media, and who often struggle in transitioning from a profession that is largely based on physical prowess to something more sustainable afterwards. Nothing, though, ever compares to the thrill of of doing that job, be it dancing or fighting.

Where this goes, I’m not sure. But it’s been something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the past year and getting it out there might inspire more thought.

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