1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain carries the film admirably.

Zero Dark Thirty is a problematic and frustrating film. It has been critically received from every end of the spectrum: pernicious, propaganda, subtly subversive, and the best movie of 2012 for those who saw it before it went wide. Everybody seems to have weighed in, even the head of the CIA. He warned people that this movie endorses torture and this is not accurate to the events it depicts; in other words he says torturing people didn’t work but this movie seems to be saying that it did. The use of torture and its efficacy clouds the real issue of its morality.

I could watch a movie like Zero Dark Thirty and be okay with its fucked up (mixed) messages. If we grant that the movie does pretty much endorse torture and draws a fairly straight line between its use and the demise of Bin Laden, what does this actually do to the quality of the movie? Well, if it was 24 the answer would be “not much”. I mean, we can consider the level to which torture has become a staple of American fiction (everything from The Vampire Diaries to Far Cry 3) on a sociological level and what this implies. We can consider the implications of this, both moral and psychological, and how perhaps Zero Dark Thirty is a reflection of a very muddy and complicated relationship between society and what is perhaps one of the ultimate moral compromises imaginable.

I prefer the latter way of looking at it, and this forces me to deal with the movie on that level. I can’t wave away what it’s doing and saying because it’s ostensibly “fiction”. It purports to be more, its opening scrawl claiming a past-fantasy level of veracity by saying that it is based on the firsthand accounts of the people involved. The key words there are “based on” and the amount of room within those simple words, room to get away with lying for the sake of a good story in most cases, is huge. I don’t claim to know how accurate Zero Dark Thirty is and I don’t really care. There’s thematic content here that deserves analysis beyond nitpicking accuracy or dismissing the whole thing as torture-porn or ‘Murica chest-thumping. Zero Dark Thirty is not, whatever you might say about it, the same kind of thing as Act of Valor.

And it’s complexity is probably what’s so frustrating about it. So let’s get into it.clarke-blog480

Clarke is really engaging in this movie. A very nuanced performance.

The movie proceeds along the 10ish year hunt for Bin Laden with some time spent on a plethora of minor one-scene characters rubbing shoulders with the core cast. For the first half the film, that cast is pretty much Jessica Chastain as Maya, a terrorist hunter, and Jason Clarke as Dan, a terrorist torturer. The duality of the film’s torture narrative is no better expressed than by the difference in approaches represented by these two characters, and the results they get. This is also likely what some critics are hinging their defense of the torture aspects on.

Maya is an old school human intelligence operative. We see her bugging her superiors, doing legwork, investigating leads, and staying on cold trails way longer than anyone else is comfortable with. She’s the classic underdog investigator in some ways, and Chastain brings a bumpy reality to the character that works well in the film’s atonal, sort of uncinematic, flow. I never fully liked Maya but I found her compelling enough, and that’s sort of a nice summary of how I feel about this movie in general. The trouble with Maya is that she is obviously the hero. You are meant to sympathize with her and this is evinced by the two times she is personally touched by terrorist attacks as shown in the movie. She is also who we spend most time with, and her goal is something the audience has an obvious stake in: hunting down and punishing Bin Laden. So why is this trouble? Maya’s determination and intelligence are admirable, but she is also symbolic of the detached brutality with which it has become standard for Americans to deal with threats. At one point she tells the SEAL team that they are going to kill Bin Laden for her. This is part of that personal stake I mentioned. The other, more damning bit is when she explains to Joel Edgerton that she didn’t want to use a SEAL team but would rather have dropped a bomb and just wiped out the compound where she thinks Bin Laden is holed up with his chief courier. The problem here is that this is our hero who would rather wipe an unknown number of people, almost certainly including innocents, just to get at one guy. The calculus of war allows us to coldly rationalize such choices and accept collateral damage when it gets a larger, nobler goal accomplished. This is the same logic that applies to using drone strikes in place of fireteams, a tactic that has characterized the Obama administration’s approach to operations in the Middle East. The calculus and logic might work, but this is still indiscriminate killing of innocent people and its shown in the film that using a team only lessens this, it doesn’t mitigate it entirely.

That all said, Maya gets where she gets more by using conventional investigation tactics than by torturing Arabs. She definitely exploits torture to get answers, and this is a huge problem for the “this movie doesn’t endorse torture” people. The sticking point, which Devin Faraci called “splitting hairs”, is that the man from whom she gets the lead that eventually gets her to Bin Laden was tortured to such a state that he doesn’t remember not giving her intel. Dan and Maya trick this man into talking as a direct result of having previously tortured him. It is not splitting hairs to consider this fact, but it is intellectually dishonest to wave it away.

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Maya fighting with her superiors is a classic underdog detective trope used to generate audience sympathy for the character.

Zero Dark Thirty subtly undermines the pro-torture message it can never really get away from through Dan. The subtlety that Devin and other critics are attributing to the movie comes from Dan’s very clear, but never explicit, departure from the approach. He takes a desk, essentially, and gives up being a torturer. I get that the movie is saying that torture isn’t something you just do and get over, that Dan is probably more heroic for having a conscience about it than if he was some gung-ho “gotta get the job done” patriot or company man. Showing that Dan has a conscience is effective especially because Maya, who does express some subtle distaste but is far more the “any means necessary” type, doesn’t go there. Given that Maya is the main character and Dan is more like a sidekick, what gets extracted is a duality bridged largely by the way the key intel is revealed.

So yeah, it seems evident to me that the argument in defense of this film’s use of torture is a weak one. But what does this mean for the film?

It depends on you, really. If this is the kind of thing that bothers you, you’re going to have a bad time. Personally, I think that there’s a current of troublesome perspective running through the film. I am not very comfortable with the assumptions of justice, the methodology of its execution, or the murky depiction of torture’s efficacy without regard to its morality. Having Dan get burnt out isn’t enough because the film’s insistence that torture works is the much stronger message (albeit indirectly). None of this makes Zero Dark Thirty a weak film, just a problematic one. I think it’s important that these problems be acknowledged and discussed.

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For all its airs, this is still a Hollywood movie with conventional tropes, though well veiled. The heroine has to have a personal investment in the outcome, and the audience needs that too.

On a technical level, Zero Dark Thirty is a visually stunning film. For all that it’s so often dry dialogue about terrorists, it features some very exciting shots. When the last 25 minutes comes up, and it’s SEAL Team 6 time, Kathryn Bigelow’s visual sensibilities come out in full force. In spite of the content of the raid, it’s an exciting sequence you have to watch two hours of dry, mostly literally torturous, procedural. This is not a valid criticism given that the film is not an action film and to judge it by those standards would be disingenuous at best. While dry procedurals can be wearying, I think they are often supposed to be.

That the film spends the first 45 minutes purely on scenes of torture is being argued as a necessary part of “breaking down” the audience but I have a feeling it’s more about showing the lengths that the CIA and others went to in order to try and forestall the many terrorist attacks that followed 9/11, some of which are shown in the movie. As Obama dismantles the torture apparatus, the earnest belief that it does among some intelligence officers comes out in full force. It’s hard not to read these scenes as critical of the apparatus itself; these guys literally think they can’t win without using torture even though Maya proves it has only limited, possibly indirect benefits, and the fact that several terrorist attacks happen anyway. This is the main content of the argument that the film is coming out against the use of torture, though in a far less than explicit way. Being non-didactic about this issue is one thing, but I think Zero Dark Thirty errs on the side of giving these positions a lot of room in the sun while not offering anyone saying anything counter. It has the feel of a criticism of the government ending the program since Bin Laden getting offed seems far less a victory than stopping even one of the murders he helped happen via actionable intel. The movie also chooses to be unsubtle about the idea that killing Bin Laden is tantamount to saving future lives, which seems ludicrous to me. Osama Bin Laden’s death simply doesn’t seem like the end of terrorism.

Oh there I go again, getting into the socio-political nature of the film. It’s honestly hard to talk about any aspect of it without going there. That the movie invites this makes it fair enough, I think, but I have to keep reminding myself to talk about the movie as well as what it signifies. That said, you can’t talk about Zero Dark Thirty without talking about torture as the front-end of a problem-solving strategy that has reigned so long and so unchallenged that it has begun to infect every level of the culture until torture is a normative practice, a normative moral compromise that considers this only long enough to acknowledge that yes, it’s a moral compromise.

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A nice example of a quiet, great shot.

The above image, nice as it is, implies something. You can’t help but consider its symbolism. There’s the American flag, the banner hanging over everything that it does as a country and institution. Within the banner, veiled slightly into anonymity by it, is the profile of the Intelligence Officer. The implication is that this is what lies behind the flag. I think the film is positive about that connection, whereas I think it’s nothing to be positive about. Lionization of what these people do, of what they are shown to do in the film and we know for a fact is the kind of stuff that was done and is still done, is an inherently harmful strategy. Efficacy is a smokescreen for the morality, and this movie therefore feels like a smokescreen via the levels on which it deals with the issues. Efficacy is the dominant paradigm of the argument: does it work or not?

The moral compromise of torture is: I do this barbaric, cruel, and dehumanizing thing to someone because they are the enemy and they have information I require to defeat my enemy. The traditional framing of the issue is a cost-benefit analysis. Efficacy in other words.

But I’d argue that morality is more important than efficacy in all cases. Apparently the Obama administration agrees on at least the level of torture (the drone strikes being similarly sticky and for the same reasons). Bill Maher pointed out that torture would have certainly made the lives of generals and leaders easier throughout history but, culturally, it was not within the acceptable realm of moral compromise. Culture has been changing to make room for horrific acts made in the context of potentially more horrific consequences. Specifically: better to torture than to have another 9/11. What this costs culture is the efficacy (irony!) of its moral compass. You no longer have a true north, but a lodestone you’re dangling a few feet in front of you so that it looks like you’re going the right direction. This lodestone is called “The Ends Justify the Means” and while not as expressly supportive of that ideology as some would have it, Zero Dark Thirty manifestly indulges that mentality in many ways.

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In which the film does briefly take on some of the grandiose imagery and affection of propaganda.

I like guns and military porn as much as the next guy. I play Call of Duty and other military shooters and I think guns are cool and violence a fundamental part of masculine, if not human, nature. Like Dan says at one point, “It’s biology, bro”. But wear I draw the line is that my appreciation for these things stays safely in the realm of fiction. Violent movies and videogames stimulate some baser part of our brains that is wired with fight or flight so hard that we sometimes don’t know what to do with ourselves. Films, in particular, have shown that violence can even be beautiful and it is certainly often cathartic in that it takes the place of real violence in our lives. And someday, I imagine, we won’t even need the simulacrum to get by.

Another issue with Zero Dark Thirty is that this is not fantasy violence, but real boots on the ground kind of stuff. As admirable as these brave people are, for their courage and skill above all, it comes to pass that they are worshipped as a monolith of American heroism. Some people think that Call of Duty is problematic for that it seems a little too close to simulation but anyone who actually plays those games sees the difference in context. And context, as they say, is everything.

The context of Zero Dark Thirty‘s final raid is that it’s a house full of noncombatants being descended upon by about two dozen highly trained, heavily armed men who are there to identify and murder one of them. In the end, they kill something like five people, a few of which were not armed. I appreciate that these soldiers should defend themselves from men, women, or even children who draw down on them. In a quieter moment meant perhaps to be “subtly” reflective of what’s transpired, the two SEALs played by Edgerton and Chris Pratt briefly talk about how many and what kind of people they just killed. It’s a real moment, and it isn’t about bragging. That said, it’s also a deeply troubling moment. These are the guys on the ground and their detachment may be necessary, but it’s also just shy of total. They are detached from the human cost of their actions, able only to reflect on the level of swapping notes about a video game they are both playing.

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One incredibly patronizing scene has a SEAL using a fucking glowstick to calm a young girl who is certainly aware that these are soldiers murdering her family.

That part of it is understandable from an objective perspective, but it gets ugly when you start to consider the wider context of the status SEAL Team 6 and similar forces have taken on in American culture. These are the heroes, the best of the best. They’re the kind of people that Act of Valor is asking Americans to aspire to being. Though it is not jingoistic in the same way as that unfortunate film, Zero Dark Thirty cannot escape that context.

I would be willing to go easy on this stuff were it not for the scene described in the above picture. This is a thing that may have happened. I can’t pretend to know whether one of the SEALs stopped to calm a wailing girl with a chemical light, but it seems so false that I almost spit out my diet coke. I mean, whether or not Bin Laden and his immediates needed killing is one thing, but why this scene that seems to want to deny the reality of the horror that is transpiring? Put yourself in these peoples’ shoes for a second and realize what this raid means to them. I’m not saying it’s enough to shoot down the whole operation (that’s a whole other debate) but it is certainly worth considering that no amount of fucking glowsticks is going to make that little girl forget about what she’s seeing and hearing, no matter how insulated she is from it by being both young and, presumably in another room.

But these are primitive Arabs, let alone kids, so our magic glowing sticks will beguile them with awe and wonder such that we will seem as something other than a death squad tramping through our house. I mean, that’s the message. These soldiers aren’t bad guys, they are just doing their jobs and trying to do them without too much unnecessary fuss or damage. I get that, but this glowstick business shamefully glosses the reality of the situation such that we’re only meant to be focusing on the righteous sword of vengeance being laid on the neck of Bin Laden and al Qaeda and so on.

So you may by now be starting to see why I say Zero Dark Thirty is frustrating and muddy. Every time it seems to be coming close to the objective standpoint it mantles itself with, it caves to cliches or tropes that fly the other direction. This is where you get the conundrums associated with how it depicts its controversial content and themes. It’s wrapped snugly, if subtly, in a fairly standard narrative blanket.

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Interestingly, I could not find a single screencap of the movie’s torture scenes.

Too dry and singular to really be a great film, it’s still important to acknowledge that Zero Dark Thirty is fascinating, complex, and potentially important. As a cultural artifact it does a lot more than as the “true story of yada yada”, which is probably why I couldn’t help but approach it from that perspective during most of this review. Being full of strong performances, visual and technical mastery, as well as a script that isn’t afraid to talk at a collegiate level (at one point Dan refers to tautologies, a term I bet most people are unfamiliar with for a concept just as potentially esoteric).

The willingness to use complex terminology and concepts in a conversational manner was one of my favorite things about the movie, but it’s also the kind of thing that lends easily to the Subtle and Smart ribbons that are being pinned to this movie in lieu of criticizing its mixed messages, problematic content, and implications for American culture.

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