Even Hollywood — never shy about upping the ante when it comes to gratuitous, bloody mayhem — seemed to recognize that a switch had flipped. Studios immediately canceled splashy premieres and tweaked marketing campaigns for the gun-heavy films “Jack Reacher” and “Django Unchained.” Former senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America (the major studios’ Washington lobbying outfit), announced that Hollywood had “reached out to the Administration to express our support for the President’s efforts in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. Those of us in the motion picture and television industry want to do our part to help America heal. We stand ready to be part of the national conversation.”
If the film industry suggested, at least rhetorically, that it was ready to rethink the violence that films routinely fetishize and celebrate, similar self-reflection was not forthcoming from the National Rifle Association. When NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre finally saw fit to grant a post-Newtown news conference — during which he took no questions from the media — he blamed everything from video games to Oliver Stone’s 1994 film “Natural Born Killers” for gun violence, ostentatiously refusing to mention easy access to semiautomatic weapons and high-powered ammunition. (Since he didn’t take questions, LaPierre couldn’t explain why gun violence isn’t nearly so prevalent in the countries that eagerly import and pirate our most trigger-happy blockbusters.)
LaPierre certainly didn’t blame “Dirty Harry,” the 1971 film that just a few days earlier had been named to the Library of Congress’s prestigious National Film Registry — and that over its lifetime as a cherished American classic has probably done more for the sales of the .44 magnum revolver than any ad campaign Smith & Wesson or the NRA could dream up.
Clint Eastwood’s Harry Calla-han, of course, epitomizes the vigilante ideal that Americans have long worshiped, from Charles Bronson’s vengeful widower in “Death Wish” to Kiefer Sutherland’s gloves-off interrogator in the television show “24.” And, like Sutherland’s Jack Bauer, Eastwood’s Callahan was a world-class torturer, racing the clock with extreme prejudice and a lack of regard for due process that fit right in with the era’s jacked-up anxieties that maybe civil rights had gone too far. (It bears noting that the Library also included “The Spook Who Sat By the Door,” a little-known 1973 film about a black CIA operative who foments a violent insurrectionist urban movement.)
But if torture has its place in the pantheon of films of historic, cultural and aesthetic importance, apparently it doesn’t belong in a movie depicting the war on terror, at least according to McCain and his colleagues, who wrote that torture should be banished not only in practice but also in “serious public discourse.” To the viewers who will surely be unsettled by “Zero Dark Thirty’s” portrayal of what was done in our name in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, serious public discourse might seem to be exactly what was missing back then and what is called for now as we contemplate the projection of American power in a vexingly asymmetrical world.