Watching ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Whilst Reading ‘A Hologram For A King’

Dave Eggers is a remarkably gifted American novelist who seems to me to get more attention than love from his readers. Kathryn Bigelow is a remarkably gifted American film director who seems to me to get more attention than love from her viewers. This weekend I read Eggers’ A Hologram For A King and watched Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and the contrast they provided on how America views the Middle East was fascinating.

Eggers’ novel is a damn fine book. It is touching and true. Alan is a middle-aged American sales executive, plagued by doubts about his past and the way his marriage fell apart and the role he played in the deconstruction of American manufacturing. He is concerned about the future because he can’t provide for his daughter’s college fees and he has a growth on his spine. He is in Saudi Arabia, pitching impressive technology on behalf of a multinational company who is seeking an exclusive IT contract for a new city being built by the King.

Things do not go as planned.

But in the meanwhile, we get a look under the skin of Saudi society and Eggers continues with one of his dominant persistent themes: our shared common humanity. Alan makes friends with his driver Yousef, a hilariously high-spirited young man and their friendship develops in a fascianting way. Through Yousef we get a picture of Saudi society that is uncompromising without being patronising. Alan bonds with a Dutch consultant called Hanne; she is more experienced in the ways of being rootless than Alan is, just as Europe has longer had to struggle with not being the centre of the world for that bit longer than the US. Finally, Alan is befriended by his Saudi doctor. In all of this, Eggers never compresses us down into depression over the pervasive malaise of Alan’s impotency however. He is hopeless, unable to desire and ultimately, he is at the beck and call of a monarch. But he keeps going on.

Alan is America, defeated before its end.

And this is a very good novel.

Bigelow’s movie is critically adored. It is distant and fantastical. Maya, played by the inordinately beautiful Jessica Chastain is our focus. We do not know what possesses her to pursue Bin Laden so relentlessly. We do not know anything about her, but that she is in her early thirties, she swears, she owns a wig and she was recruited by the CIA out of high-school. If the goal of this cipher is to hammer home to us how identity-destroying secret service can be, the point is lost. Instead, what I understood from the under-developed lead character is that the War on Terror is fought by nihilists who are utterly perplexed by the motives of their enemies because their own motives are hidden from them.

The torture scenes in this movie have been the topic of much discussion. They are simultaneously more shocking than I imagined and more fantastical. They are grotesquely explicit, which ultimately is less effective than a sideways glance. The photos from Abu Ghraib, caught still, without context, remain more affecting than any of the up close depictions of water-boarding you are confronted with from the beginning in this movie. They are fantastical because they suggest that people can hold out under torture.

They can’t.

That is why America tortures people.

The movie suggests that under Obama, torture is finished. This is the kind of fantasy that will cast a very poor light on Bigelow in fifty years time.

The film ends with a final half hour where the screen goes green and amazing super-soldiers in secret helicopters invade Pakistan, break into a house, kill many people and take the body of Bin Laden and a bunch of hard-drives back to Afghanistan.

In Zero Dark Thirty, it is not only the hero that we fail to get to know. The enemy is just assumed. He is bearded and Arab. Any sense that this war is being fought in a context of actual human society with history and geography and religion and culture at play is firmly shoved off into the background. The Irish Times movie critic called this film strangely apolitical, which is a bit like saying that Crime and Punishment isn’t about Christianity because no one goes to Mass. The whole of Zero Dark Thirty is politics. This is revealed by the fact that no one ever speaks of the thing that is being fought. America’s rightness is assumed. Whatever excesses may have occurred in “enhanced interrogation techniques” was the end result of the reality of frontline combat. Sitting behind a desk in the homeland, it might be easy to cry foul, but out there in the desert, we are reassurred that the practice was conducted by decent men with doctorates.

If the twentieth century teaches us anything, it must be that intellectualism and sadism are not distinct groups.

This movie is being praised for its moral ambiguity. Them there are fancy words for moral confusion. It would have been a stellar film if it had the discipline to focus on character, as The Hurt Locker did. Instead, it fueled my fury, with pointless exploitation at the beginning and turgid murder at the end.

When compared against Eggers’ novel, what lingers with me is how difficult it is to say anything meaningful, let along good and true and beautiful, when we take our eyes off the particular instantiations of human life we call characters and instead try to have an abstract conversation about concepts like “torture” or “terror” or “war”. Eggers’ novel is true and bold and touching. Bigelow’s movie is false and bold and distancing. Two American visions of the Middle East, but only one of these visions is humanistic. The other underwrites yet more more constant war.

Makoto Fujimura has said that “We need to redefine art and its effectiveness by how it helps us to love one another sacrificially”. If we take that as a theological proposition to experiment with, I encourage you to give Eggers a look before Bigelow.

Your Correspondent, Found and then destroyed Atlantis