Spoiler alert: At the end of Promised Land, the movie about two salespeople for a fictional natural-gas fracking company, the main characters receive a letter from their bosses showing how their environmentalist opponent lied about a farm where livestock and crops died due to fracking chemicals in the water. It turns out the farm was in Louisiana, not Nebraska as the activist had claimed. Then it turns out that said “opponent” is just a straw man, a fake advocacy group set up in secret by the natural-gas company itself, existing solely for the purpose of being discredited. One of the salespeople has a crisis of conscience and exposes this double fraud, for which he of course loses his job.
If I had walked out of the theater alone after seeing this movie, I would have had no questions in my mind about the reasonableness of its portrayal of corporate conspiracies. The movie’s assertion that “a nine-billion-dollar company will control every outcome,” even if that means creating a fake opponent and then discrediting it, made perfect sense to me, proving that my membership in a workgroup of Occupy Seattle has substantially influenced my thinking. But my friend Lion was with me, and he immediately attacked the conspiracy plot twist as unrealistic and manipulative, stating that he had never heard of anything similar happening in real life. I have to admit that I haven’t either; fossil-fuel companies have certainly created fake grassroots allies, but that’s not the same thing at all. I’m still not convinced that a conspiracy like the one in the movie couldn’t happen in the real world, but I can see how its implausibility discredits the message of the film itself, turning it into little more than a piece of misleading environmentalist propaganda.
The filmmakers had other choices. Just before the “environmentalist” comes clean about his true employer, he justifies his lies about the farm the way a real activist would: “They contacted me. They needed my help.” That could have been an interesting story to explore: an environmentalist from rural Nebraska thinks he’s the one to persuade rural Pennsylvanians to oppose fracking, since his hometown is similar to theirs, but he doesn’t have a fracking-related disaster narrative of his own; luckily, some other environmentalists in Louisiana call him up and offer to lend him theirs. In this version, the salesman could be disgusted at first, but then recognize some of his own pragmatic tendency to bend the truth in the environmentalist’s methods, and the fact that the disaster in Louisiana was real could still have pushed him toward a crisis of conscience. Alternately, the photos of dead cows could have been stolen from an incident completely unrelated to fracking, or even created in Photoshop, further deepening the activist’s complicity in the culture of deception so adroitly and disturbingly portrayed in the film, and that would also have led to an interesting story.
On the real-world conspiracy front, another friend of Lion’s asserted in a Facebook comment that “the movie was backed by Arab oil money.” While Imagenation Abu Dhabi was indeed one of the major production companies involved, I really don’t see how Big Oil would benefit from a film that bashes Big Natural Gas. I’m sure most viewers will assume the unethical corporate behavior portrayed in Promised Land is supposed to be emblematic of the whole fossil-fuel industry, or even of capitalism itself (okay, that last phrase comes from the Occupy part of my brain, but still).
Zero Dark Thirty, the highly biased dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, reminds me of the trailer for the movie Gangster Squad, whose tagline is “To protect the law, break it.” It’s essentially an extended dissertation on the thesis that “this is war, and in war, justice can only be obtained through injustice.” The first person questioned by Maya and Dan is tortured extensively first, and then persuaded that he’s already decided to give up some information and then forgotten about it because “sleep deprivation causes memory loss.” Another questionee waves off Maya's threats of sending him to Israel by saying “I have no wish to be tortured again. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.” There's an extended sequence about a colleague of Maya’s who thinks she’s found a genuine defector from al-Qaeda who wants to give the Americans vital information, but what she gets instead is death by suicide bombing. In general, the movie portrays the history of the past decade as one terrorist attack after another; meanwhile, the vastly greater destruction wrought by the American war machine is referenced only obliquely, as in Dan's introduction of a colleague by saying “We did Iraq together.”
One of the most blatantly propagandistic moments in the movie comes after Obama has promised to “restore America’s moral standing” by stopping torture, a promise that has largely been empty words in real life. In the movie, a CIA operative complains, “Who do we ask? We lost the detainee program. Are we going to get the information from someone at Gitmo who’s all lawyered up?” The clear implication is that the slightest intrusion of the American Bill of Rights or the Geneva Conventions into the CIA’s work somehow make their anti-terrorist investigations next to impossible. In the end, they send a bunch of soldiers and two expensive, poorly-tested helicopters into harm’s way in Abbottabad based on circumstantial evidence, and get lucky; the movie says they could have been much more legitimately certain of the outcome if only they had still had the right to torture people.
There are several things terribly wrong with these assertions. One is that torture and other human-rights violations in the name of the “War on Terror” continue apace; the practice of “extraordinary rendition” is alive and well, even the highly visible detainees at Guantánamo Bay still have next to no rights, and of course America can now threaten detainees with death to their families administered by flying robots if they refuse to cooperate. Another problem is that the whole operation rested on a quite possibly invalid premise: the idea that in 2011, getting bin Laden was still important enough to be worth spending significant resources on at all. The filmmakers, to their credit, did show one government official trying to tear down this premise; Maya countered his argument by essentially pointing out that the American people still wanted bin Laden’s head on a platter, so bin Laden’s relevance or irrelevance to actual American national-security concerns was a moot point. She might as well have just turned to the camera and spoken directly to human-rights advocates in the audience: “If you wanted the architect of 9/11 to pay for his crimes, then all that torture was your fault.” Her decade-long obsession with revenge, which extended to a stated desire to bomb a house containing a dozen children, was supposed to be quintessentially American.
Before going into the theater, I participated in a protest outside and spoke with several moviegoers. One of them had somehow fooled himself into believing that the movie shows how torture doesn’t work. At least three others claimed to support torture, with one simply walking past our anti-torture protest signs with the comment “It works.” If I’d had time, I would have countered, “So does slavery. What’s your point?” In the end, Zero Dark Thirty is just another in a long string of movies and TV shows telling us that the whole idea of human rights is hopelessly naïve, and that “bad guys” deserve any degree of brutality that “good guys” choose to inflict on them. Tragically, Americans are buying that premise in ever-growing numbers.