Zero Dark Thirty
by George Sax
She's targeting terrorism central
Zero Dark Thirty
If Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is one of the most exciting and important movies of this year, as press response seems to indicate, it’s also one of the most troubling, and perhaps most dangerous, in a long time. (It was premiered last month to qualify for awards, but it’s only reaching general audiences now.) It may also be fundamentally dishonest, but it’s harder to adjudge the degree of self-awareness that informed it.
Mass-market movie fare is only very rarely as controversial and impactive as this one. Quentin Tarentino’s Django Unchained, his smartass, bring-on-the-blood, antebellum racial-revenge cartoon has been eliciting surprise and complaints about its repetitious use of the N-word, but that’s nothing compared to the dimensions of Bigelow’s disturbing accomplishment. Her command of the motion picture medium is graphically, viscerally communicated in Zero. Less immediate in their effect are the political inflections and influences that have been implanted. But they’re there. Their presence has to raise questions about the interactions of popular art, ethics, and politics.
Bigelow and her screenwriter and close associate Mark Boal have undertaken to tell the story—or more accurately, a story—of the United States government’s decade-long search-and-destroy mission to get al-Qaeda head Osama bin Laden. In their version, an extraordinarily single-minded young CIA analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain) takes on this daunting task with a consuming commitment and is finally almost single-handedly responsible for finding the world’s most hated terrorist.
Tensely and expertly constructing its narrative as she slowly builds her case, sometimes in the face of her superiors’ patronizing skepticism, errors in judgment, and competing agendas, it’s a tale of a quietly heroic endeavor and triumph. Early on, Bigelow and Boal introduce an allegedly crucial intelligence source, an al-Qaeda financial agent being held in one of the CIA’s secret overseas prisons (sympathetically played by French actor Reda Kateb). Maya, fresh off the plane from the States, is invited by Dan, the bluff, friendly, deceptively good ol’ boy interrogator (Jason Clarke), to skip what he’s going to do to this man. But she insists on witnessing it, and, although unnerved by the waterboarding of this already bruised and battered guy, winds up participating by hauling water.
Zero posits that becuse of the relentless physical and psychological torture of this prisoner, eventually he gives up the name of one of bin Laden’s couriers, an Ahmed Abu, and over the next eight years, Maya’s monomaniacal search for this man’s location tracks him to Abbadabad, Pakistan, and bin Laden’s hideout there.
It is this particular aspect of the movie’s portrayal that has occasioned the cries of foul made against Bigelow and Boal. Members of Congress, former CIA personnel, the acting director of the agency, and journalists have insisted that the identity of the courier was not produced by torture. Bigelow and Boal had access to present agency employees, including, in some reports, the woman on whom Maya’s character was based. What they did with their special access to information is the heart of the controversy.
Those who are calling Zero a cinematic masterwork aren’t wrong, but that’s an inadequate response aesthetically and ethically. Bigelow’s suspenseful development of her narrative, her engrossingly bravura technique, her and Boal’s marshalling of details into a surprisingly involving narrative sweep, and the movie’s several explosive, jarring action sequences make the picture a surpassing success with sharp emotional impact. All of this is given a docudrama earnestness: Journalism-like headings introduce sections of the movie; Greig Fraser’s cinematography mostly maintains a restricted color range, and the camera is usually placed at eye level. Zero proceeds chronologically, year by year, gathering persuasive, cumulative verisimilitude.
But this is all artifice. Georgia Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss has dismissed complaints about Bigelow and Boal’s use, or misuse, of privileged information, saying it’s only a movie. This almost gets to the heart of the problem, probably closer than the senator knows. What Bigelow has done is bend the art of moviemaking to a dubious purpose. Whether she has misrepresented the accessible factual material or not, Zero can be deplored on moral and legal grounds. She’s entitled to believe in torture’s utility, and perhaps she even believes in the story she’s told. But it’s one that represents the interests of people who, in some instances, were deeply involved in the secret American torture program, and the movie gives only short shrift to legal objections. (Dan refers ruefully to the investigators who will be sniffing around for scapegoats after the Bush administration, under pressure, ends the “enhanced interrogations.”)
What Bigelow and Boal have produced is a work of cinematic propaganda, one of rare persuasiveness and emotional appeal.
It’s really rather beside the point to say it’s only a movie. Gone With the Wind’s romantic nostalgia for an imaginary American South, pre- and post-Civil War, has almost certainly influenced many more Americans than the studies of historians like Eric Foner and C. Vann Woodward. Nazi collaborator Leni Riefenstahl’s two epochal propaganda films for the Third Reich, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, moved millions around the world who never read Mein Kampf. Motion pictures are a medium that draws in viewers viscerally.
New York Magazine’s David Edelstein wrote that Zero is “borderline fascistic…as a moral statement.” He called it “an unholy masterwork.” And he perceptively noted the real discrepancy between its “boneheaded right-wing revenge picture” narrative and its “cool, brisk, grown-up” vibe. Zero isn’t fascistic, but it bears some resemblance to radically reactionary propagandistic art. Those reviewers like the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis who congratulate Bigelow and Boal for creating a movie that lays out for moviegoers the ethical and moral problems involved in the recent history of this country’s anti-terrorism efforts, including the pursuit of bin Laden, have also celebrated its power and fascination. Neither point does justice to Zero or to audiences.
Watch the trailer for Zero Dark Thirty
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