Thinking Institutionally: Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, and the Politics of Contemporary Historical Films

by Andrew Hoberek


The most controversial Oscar-nominated film of 2013 was easily Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, about the US Central Intelligence Agency’s search for and eventual assassination of Osama Bin Laden.  A whole website helpfully catalogues and provides snippets from the many commentators—film critics, journalists, filmmakers, and even US senators—who criticize Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal for two main issues: 1) crafting a narrative that, supposedly, endorses torture as an intelligence gathering technique, and 2) allowing their filmmaking choices to be shaped by the CIA in return for access not usually granted to Hollywood.

Zero Dark Thirty’s stance on torture is, to my mind, less clear-cut than many critics assert.  The charges of what some called “embedded filmmaking,” however, received new impetus as late as early May, when memos were released suggesting that the CIA asked Boal to remove some scenes from the screenplay.  While the 2013 Oscar-winner, Ben Affleck’s Argo, received less criticism, mostly for what some argued was its Orientalist and Islamophobic representation of Iranian revolutionaries in the late 1970s, a few critics pointed out that Affleck too proceeded with unusual CIA cooperation, including permission to film at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

Collusion between filmmakers and one arm (if no longer the only or even the most fearsome one) of US intelligence abroad certainly raises important questions about the politics of these two movies, although they are questions that have remained (as the do-they-or-don’t-they? discussion of Zero Dark Thirty’s stance on terrorism suggests) resolutely issue-oriented.  In this talk I broaden the frame a bit to consider how and why both films address institutions more generally.

Here I am inspired by the political scientist Adolph Reed’s critique, in the online journal nonsite, of another 2013 Oscar nominee, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.  Reed argues that despite the film’s obviously anti-racist message, it is in fact irredeemably conservative, insofar as it treats slavery and the resistance to it as purely personal matters, and is thus fully complicit with the individualism at the heart of neoliberal capitalism.  If Reed is right, perhaps we need to reconsider Zero Dark Thirty and Argo in light of their fascination with modes of institutional life that can’t be reduced to neoliberal self-advancement.  Many of the responses to Zero Dark Thirty have noted the intransigence displayed by Jessica Chastain’s character Maya in pursuing a goal that seems to be getting her nowhere, either casting this as some sort of obsession or pointing to the death of Maya’s friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) as the thing that makes Maya’s quest personal and thus acceptable.  But what these responses forget is that pursuing unprofitable goals is what non-capitalist institutions make possible: what if Jessica Chastain played a scientist committed to research that no one was funding, or an academic documentarian stringing together research leave and grants to make a film that no corporation would finance?  My point is that the form of the narrative, if not the particular circumstances, would be the same.  From this perspective, Ben Affleck’s Argo provides the fantasy version of this allegory of institutional life, casting back in time to imagine the CIA as an institution that does nice things like work with Canadians and rescue people.  Zero Dark Thirty, meanwhile, provides the hard-boiled version that is willing to say that institutions also have dark sides: that they make life harder for women within them, for instance, or permit those who are committed to their goals to perform morally questionable acts like committing torture.  In identifying this aspect of the films, I mean not to efface the problematic aspects of their investment in a particular institution at the heart of US power, but to place this investment in the context of a more general—and at the moment more politically ambiguous—faith in institutions per se.