Lady Ahab and a Pack of Mutant Chimps: Post-“War on Terror” Cinema

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Zero Dark Thirty was the diagnosis.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the cure.

 

In the years since 9/11/01, a date that threatens to re-center history, dethroning the birth of Christ Himself as the defining event of all Western civilization, we have continued telling stories. Stories to soothe ourselves, to make sense of what happened, to reckon with the dawning of a new century, one that could not be described as “American”.

After tragedy, we cling to the oldest stories, the simplest stories. Good/evil/white/black, neat divisions, no bullshit. These stories comfort and console, provide sense where there is none. They can do good, in a holistic sense, but the potential benefits have an expiration date.

The decade and a half since the towers fell has certainly seen no shortage of cultural production that wrestles with the complexity of the War on Terror, but those early-day questions and critiques have bled inwards from the fringe. Even popcorn flicks are willing to deal with these themes.

 

 

Kathryn Bigelow tried to sell Zero Dark Thirty as objective and historical, if not in some sense universal. The Hurt Locker won best picture because of this, and we all expected the same result on round two. Zero Dark Thirty was not as easily accepted. It got some critical acclaim, modest box office, a few nominations, but mostly a pissing match between the Left and Right over matters of historical record and political disposition. Did it accurately reflect the events it described? Whose ideology animated it? The Left dismissed it as an apology for latter day American Imperialism, the Right whinged about historical/factual inaccuracy.

For such an explicitly political film, no place of rest was prepared on either end of the spectrum. Almost 2 years on, it seems to be mostly forgotten; another prestige war picture thrown to the dustbin after its moment. But it haunts.

Bigelow’s film doesn’t function as intended; a little too dark and biting to simply be the docudrama its creators seemed to intend, that the public possibly wanted. What it is: a wannabe postmortem for the War on Terror. Maya is the new Marlowe/Willard; her river made of scraps of data divulged under duress, surveillance tapes, rumors. She pursues our new, alien Kurtz with the singular conviction of Ahab rather than Willard’s initially detached, soldierly professionalism or Marlowe’s haunted witness. Bin Laden is the answer; kill him, the question is settled, the bloodlust slaked. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t indulge in the expected triumphalism of a job well done, an enemy slain. The path of the film is labyrinthine, and Maya’s journey indirect.  The Great Satan is killed without fanfare in the night, prey of demonic specters that fill the women and children with terror. Maya sees his mutilated face. It does not bring her friends back, or grant them peace. There is only uncertainty, if not fear, for the future.

What should have been the closing chapter to the Great American Misadventure of the 21st century is left open. Absolute vengeance did not stem the consequences of the actions that led to it. The forces set in motion by American bloodlust birthed innumerable terrors, and sowed chaos over the Middle East for the foreseeable future. Maya’s tears of anguish in the film’s final frame are for us, for them.

 

And what does an emergent civilization of genetically enhanced apes have to do with recent American history?

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes makes war its central theme. Its hypothetical universe sees apes ascendant in the wake of humanity’s fall. One civilization tries to build something new, the other to restore past glory. Inevitably, the deep traumas suffered by either side foment into open conflict. The efforts of the peacekeepers, the dreamers, undermined by deep hurt and hatred. As the ape Caesar said, “Apes started war. Humans will not forgive.”

Dawn ends in uncertainty, akin to Zero Dark Thirty, but with a recognition of what it takes to heal. The fledgling ape civilization, led astray by the scarred and hateful Koba’s own bloodlust, bows before their founder, the risen Caesar, uniformly displaying their open palms: a gesture of supplication, a request for forgiveness, an admission of complicity. The apes display a collective guilt and lament that the modern nation-state cannot hope to match, that leaders of men spurn, view as weakness.

Zero Dark Thirty was the diagnosis.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the cure.

 

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