“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” –Hannah Arendt
There is a notable theme that has emerged salient in the winners of Hollywood’s award show season. Showtime’s Homeland just won six Emmy’s, and Argo and Zero Dark Thirty have been collecting statues at the SAG Awards, Golden Globes, and will likely take home some Oscars. What do all these media have in common? They are all stories about the CIA, full of characters and scripts that are the champions of American imperialism.
As Rachel Shabi has eloquently argued, what is most compelling about these popular representations of the responses to terrorism is that producers and audiences alike insist that these are nuanced renderings. Argo begins with a voice over that, when describing the events that led up to the Iranian Revolution, acknowledges the US government’s early support of the Shah. In Zero Dark Thirty, the graphic and horrific scenes of CIA agents practicing “enhanced interrogation” have been touted as evidence that the film is not blindly condoning torture. And in Homeland, our protagonist, Brody, is, at times, an al-Qeida operative.
It is the belief that these things could be considered valuable complexities that is most troubling. Or, more specifically, that these complexities are somehow exceptional. That is, for the depiction of torture to be taken up in public discourse as something that is controversial is to grant the US government of an always-already non-torturous disposition. This is perhaps why Argo gets left out of these conversations—Argo wasn’t about torture, just a CIA agent! This discourse assumes that there can be a separation. That there are good CIA agents and bad ones. An assumption that predicates a belief that the US is fundamentally “good” and just resorts to “bad” things in extenuating circumstances.
This is illustrated to an absurd extent on Homeland. Sure we get a sympathetic view of the desire to avenge a drone strike: we even see footage of dead children, murdered by a drone sent from the Vice President. But we also see episodes in which CIA agents are shown wrestling with the ethics of drone strikes, and even feeling remorseful for their actions. And in those moments, the Showtime drama feels more like a prime-time comedy.
Similarly, the closing scene of Zero Dark Thirty shows us an emotionally broken-down Jessica Chastain, seemingly distraught now that she has successfully completed her mission to kill and capture bin Laden. There are different ways we can interpret that scene; either it is showing her doing some moral self-reflection on the loss of another’s life, or it is showing her mourning the loss of her own life. The only life she’s known for a decade has been one that involved hunting a terrorist. Now what is she supposed to do? Both interpretations do the same work, though: both suggest that these political moments are somehow matters of unique individuals’ choices, rather than stories about an agency of the government that is designed to produce these exact kinds of outcomes.
There is nothing exceptional about torture, violence, and conquest on behalf of the US government. Whether or not individual members of the CIA are “good” people or “bad” people is of little significance, as it certainly wouldn’t impact their complicity in structural violence. They are part of a system that is currently running on the blood, oil, and land of Third World nations. Any discussion of ethics that might take form in those spaces does so with an always-already US-centric, skewed definition of the “ethical.” One that is constructed by and through a white supremacist, capitalist nation.
Admittedly, as pieces of entertainment, I loved Argo, and am hooked on Homeland (even though: WTF, the last half of Season 2?). I didn’t like Zero Dark Thirty, but that was due in large part to the inability of Kathryn Bigelow’s direction to make me forget about all my aforementioned critiques. So perhaps, politically, Zero Dark Thirty is the “best.” At least it didn’t trick me into rooting for US domination.
This piece was originally published at In Our Words.