There are two reasons why "Zero Dark Thirty" star Jessica Chastain's appearance this week on "The Daily Show" is so incredibly important and revealing. In a succinct one-minute exchange (starting at 3:35 of this clip), the interview: 1) adds credence to the notion that there is some sort of slow-motion coverup happening around the film and 2) shows how few people even at the highest reaches of the media/entertainment world know about the power of the military over media/entertainment products.
On the first point: As I previously reported, questions are now raging around whether CIA and Pentagon officials were aware of the lies about torture written into "Zero Dark Thirty's" script.
Those questions stem from Freedom of Information Act requests and earlier reporting documenting extensive collaboration between those government agencies and the film's director and writer, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal. As Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi put it, that collaboration produced a film that is "'honest' about torture in pretty much exactly the way a CIA interrogator would have told the story, without including much else."
Despite all this, however, Chastain made this incredible statement to Jon Stewart's national television audience:
"Kathryn Bigelow, our director, and Mark Boal, the writer, they decided not to work in cooperation with the government, which meant if they had, they would have gotten a lot of helicopters and airplanes and everything they needed but they would have had to have the script approved, which meant for them they couldn't tell the story they found to be the most accurate."
While it is true that the U.S. government may not have given Bigelow any military hardware, Andrew Sullivan rightly notes that Chastain's allegation about no government cooperation is "just not true" as the record proves "this movie was made hand in glove" with the very agencies "who knew the full details." We know Sullivan's characterization is correct not merely from the documentary revelations of the past few months, but from the very opening moments of the film itself when we are told it is "based on firsthand accounts of actual events" -- accounts that could only come from government sources because many of the details of those events are known only to such sources.
Why, then, would Chastain so brazenly try to cover up the fact that her film was made in collaboration with the government? Probably because she's following the rhetorical lead of her director in trying to preserve the key selling point of the movie.
The marketing of "Zero Dark Thirty" -- indeed, the whole appeal of it -- relies on it being viewed as a "journalistic" effort and a "reported film," which is exactly how Bigelow has been billing it. Inherent in such a billing, of course, is the idea that the film wasn't made in collaboration with the government, because such collaboration would, by definition, make the film a piece of state-directed agitprop rather than anything that could be honestly described as "journalistic."
Thus, Chastain's lie, like Bigelow's, is probably part of an effort to jealously (if dishonestly) protect the core assumption (or what the ad industry would call the Unique Selling Proposition) that gets people to buy tickets to her film. The assumption is that what is being presented is courageous, independent and revelatory reporting of the supposedly "most accurate" inconvenient truths rather than standard-issue truth-mangling government propaganda -- in this case, the kind of propaganda that serves to politically justify torture by pretending it led to Osama bin Laden's death, even though, according to the record, that story is not true.
That notion of propaganda gets to the second and equally important part of the interview, the part where Chastain provides Stewart's audience with a rare glimpse of how, in general, the U.S. government's national security apparatus stealthily uses its massive resources to ideologically skew cultural products (movies, TV shows, etc.) in a pro-militarist direction. Here's the key exchange (emphasis added):
CHASTAIN: If you work alongside the government, you get to use the planes, you get to use the helicopters, but they also get (to edit) the script.
STEWART: Is that really true, so the deal is if you let us look and approve your script, you can have a helicopter?
STEWART: I am gonna write a script ... I so badly would like a helicopter .. .(laughter)
CHASTAIN: They don't give it to you, they let you borrow it for your film.
In this, Chastain is both brutally honest and also guilty of severe understatement.
She is brutally honest in offering up the rare public admission of something most Americans do not know: namely, that many -- if not most -- films that feature extensive scenes with U.S. military hardware were subjected to script editing by the U.S. military so that the final product is as ideologically pro-military and supportive of existing military policy as possible. That's right, in the hugely influential business of entertainment, the government grants access and denies access to public property (read: military hardware) based on its evaluation of the political ideology of filmmakers.
Where Chastain is guilty of understatement is in how she describes this script-hardware bargain as mere "borrow(ing)" - as if the exchange of line edits for helicopters is no big deal. In fact, as I reported in my recent book, "Back to Our Future", such "borrowing" is a huge deal, saving studios millions of dollars on scenery and hardware costs they would otherwise have to incur.
This is precisely why for the relatively few movies that question militarism and military policy, there is a glut of films that glorify American militarism and status-quo military policy. Simply put, the financial benefits to studios of getting to "borrow" government planes, helicopters and even troops for free is so huge that, according to the director of "The Hunt for Red October," many studios have told screenwriters and directors to "get the cooperation of the [military], or forget about making the picture."
What makes this latter part of "The Daily Show" interview so significant is not merely Chastain's acknowledgment of the overall propaganda system, but Stewart's genuine surprise. He is a decision maker at the very top of the entertainment industry -- and yet even he apparently is not aware that the U.S. government grants and denies access to public property on the basis of whether a filmmaker will submit a script to ideological line editing.
That's not necessarily a criticism of Stewart, per se; it is a commentary on how devious that system really is and, thus, how few people even know about it.
Such subterfuge, of course, is what makes this kind of propaganda so powerful. In operating quietly, invisibly and ubiquitously, it politically tilts entertainment products that do not seem political in nature. The result is ideological content disguised as seemingly apolitical entertainment products - the kind of products that do not tip off viewers' bullshit detectors in the way that, say, political advertisements do. Hence, intensely political messages -- in "Zero Dark Thirty's" case, about the supposed efficacy of torture -- are transmitted in a way that is far more subliminally persuasive than the typical campaign commercial.
Considering this, Chastain coupling a dishonest statement about her particular film project with truth-telling about the Military-Entertainment Complex shouldn't be seen as coincidental. She admits the troubling truth about the Military-Entertainment Complex, but because nobody wants to seem like a shill (and because "Zero Dark Thirty" relies on looking independent), she makes sure to insist that her film has nothing to do with such a deceptive system.
If only both statements were true, her movie would be a far more honest -- and valuable -- piece of filmmaking.