14 02 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Depiction as Endorsement (?), or: When Movies Get Partisan

By Jonathan Fisher in Rambling Rhetoric,Reviews

Zero Dark Thirty Principal


Kathryn Bigelow has been widely criticised for the depiction of torture in her latest war film, Zero Dark Thirty — in interviews she has insisted that “depiction is not endorsement”, but many critics, if not audiences, aren’t so sure. Waleed Aly, a fine and intelligent journalist who until now I did not know had a penchant for film criticism, offered this about the inclusion of torture in Zero Dark Thirty:

“When Jack Bauer tortures bad guys on 24, he’s at least a cartoonish action hero. Where 24 sanitises torture to make it palatable, Zero Dark Thirty presents it as grotesque, then asks us to accept it anyway.”

Matt Neal at the good old Warrnambool Standard also touched upon the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty:

“… This brings us to the biggest controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty — the suggestion that it implicitly supports torture, as it sets up a plot trail that says ‘torturing terrorists led to the killing of bin Laden, so torture is a good thing’.

… It’s highly likely, considering all news reports over the last decade, that torture was used in the hunt for bin Laden, and this movie is more about the methods used in the hunt. Some critics appear to be getting confused — torture is a bad thing in the real world, movies reflecting the fact that torture really happened in the real world in this situation are not necessarily a bad thing.”

I’ll certainly give Aly that 24 santises the torture and violence that are daily routine for Jack Bauer, who is certainly a ‘cartoonish action hero’ that lurches from one outlandish scenario to another without apparently needing any food, water or sleep in any given 24 hour period. But I take issue with his conclusion that Zero Dark Thirty asks us to accept the value of torture as part of a valid and moral national security framework. In fact, one of the pleasures of Zero Dark Thirty is its depiction of murkiness on how all of this works — the film (which in case you haven’t heard, follows the CIA operation to hunt down Osama bin Laden through the experiences of a young, single-minded automaton agent played by Jessica Chastain), just as The Hurt Locker did before it, shows the randomness, chance, and downright messiness that constitutes modern warfare. Politics muddies the waters even further. Aly, in the same article, criticises the film for showing CIA agents passively referring to the change of policy that came with the Obama administration as if it were an annoyance. Bigelow routinely hammers into us the personality traits that, to her artistic vision, exemplify those that are charged with intelligence gathering and mission operating — dispassionate, hardened, not easily swayed by moral or ethical imperatives. They have a job to do, and bosses (elected officials) who tell them how to do it. Whether or not this system is a good thing is not necessarily for the movie to say (and I’m not convinced Zero Dark Thirty takes a strong stance either way). After all, it’s not for art to definitively answer questions. Art (and specifically films) can, if the artist so chooses, simply exist to pose questions, and explore the different possibilities via the prism of stylistic and other choices. For instance, Bigelow is big on showing, as I said above, the ‘messiness’ of war. It’s an ugly business — uglier than most people want to believe. But deep down, her films feel that conflict, while tragic and regrettable, is necessary simply by virtue of the way humans intrinsically are. This is a world view that I am beginning to come around to the older I get — and movies certainly should be viewed and judged according to our own world views. That’s why opinions differ so wildly.

Back in 2004, An Inconvenient Truth was a prime example of this — the partisan-isation of movie-going. Al Gore, former Democratic Vice-President, was the mouthpiece for a documentary on the dangers of global warming — for which there is plenty of evidence — and while the film put the issue back into the Zeitgeist  it also was counter-productive for the cause. The issue has been stillborn in the US Congress pretty much forever, but even moreso after An Inconvenient Truth was released. And why not? If you were a Republican congressman who had to go up against the politicking of the Clinton Administration, how would you feel about passing carbon mitigation legislation, in part because of a movie presented by a significant left-wing political figure? More or less inclined? Movies are not a vacuum — we bring into movies like An Inconvenient Truth and Zero Dark Thirty a whole bunch of baggage, and this always colours our views of such films.

Zero Dark Thirty Torture 1

Having said all this, I’m pretty sure that Zero Dark Thirty remains value-neutral on the issue of torture. As Matt Neal points out, it’s likely that torture was used in the hunt for bin Laden (protests from US Senators aside), even if it didn’t produce much intelligence that the CIA didn’t have anyway. As presented by Bigelow, it’s not obvious what her personal feelings are towards the practice. During the scenes, the camera is dead-still, and doesn’t swoop and swipe as if to attach excitement to the scene — unlike, say, 24, the example used by Aly. There is little non-diagetic music. The dialogue and logic of the American CIA agent committing the torture is laughably fallacious (“You determine how I treat you”). Occasionally we cut to a shot of Chastain’s character looking distinctly uncomfortable, and when the man torturing the suspect addresses his victim, he alternates between gruff aggression and soothing whispering, as if he were talking to a dog. Later in the film, this same character returns to a boring old desk job in Washington, citing that he needed to ‘go do something normal’ again. In between, we see him treat a pack of monkeys with more respect than he does any of his interrogation subjects. Is this because Bigelow is suggesting that the potential terrorists are sub-human? I would say not — more that humans get used to shutting out aspects of their jobs that they may find distasteful, while maintaining their inner humanity. The world is complex, and the issue of culpability in torture is not black-and-white.

Zero Dark Thirty Torture 2

I’ll concede that it’s not completely clear whether Zero Dark Thirty condones torture, but even if it did, I would still find room to appreciate this movie. While I don’t think it’s completely perfect — most of the characters are archetypes, barely distinguishable from one another save for a few obligatory insights into their (lack of) character — this movie certainly comes across as being ‘on-the-button’. That is, it applies pared-back perspective on the operations that led to the killing of bin Laden, and its final shot particularly resonates as a human manifestation of the taxing nature of this line of work. Zero Dark Thirty is a long movie, in which there’s plenty to discuss — it’s a shame that many critics have funnelled their opinion on the film into the opening half an hour.


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