The Pros and Cons: Zero Dark Thirty
Good cinematic responses to 9/11 are few. We all have moving images of what happened. Creating new ones is difficult. Like the docudrama United 93, whose factual tone Zero Dark Thirty also cites, Bigelow acknowledges this problem by opening her movie on the assassination of Osama Bin Laden with a dark screen – before filling it with the voices of people trapped in the twin towers. This is the ‘why’. What follows is the how: immediate dislocation to the procedures of the US response.
So there’s no backstory provided on CIA operative Maya (Chastain) when she’s assigned to a ‘black site’ in Pakistan. It’s a given, this obsession with revenge. The procedures observed in the rooms where she watches and encourages torture are evident. The procedural obstacles within a CIA hierarchy that hesitates to accept her theory (that Bin Laden must have been using a courier and that finding him would lead them to the man himself): these too, are presented as matter of fact. The 25 grainy-green minutes of SEALs moving through the rooms of Bin Laden’s hideout, searching, identifying, killing: filmed almost in real-time, they are grimly axiomatic.
Bigelow doesn’t deny suffering. The torture and killing is graphic. The point is that such procedures are not effective. Terrorism continues, post-torture, in the film (and in reality). But it’s for us to make this connection, not for Bigelow to spell it out. This film addresses those capable of moral judgment on the basis of reflection, not people who want to be told what to think – or feel. EL
Con: Moral vacuum
Gruesome snippets of real-life phone calls on September 11, played over a pitch-black screen, are supposed to set the mood. It’s all “based on firsthand accounts of actual events”, warns the opening sequence – a claim supported by Kathryn Bigelow herself, who’s been boasting about her ‘journalistic’ depiction of the decade-long chain of events leading up to the execution of Osama Bin Laden by Navy SEALs in May 2011.
The problem is that it is all pretence. Zero is no more than an action movie using all the tricks of Hollywood-style dramatisation. This involves creating linearity where there is none and organising largely unknown, convoluted events around a central protagonist – in this case a petite CIA agent with a computer brain and an iron will. No one knows who the real Maya is (apparently only scriptwriter Mark Boal does, and her identity was not even revealed to lead actress Jessica Chastain). All we know is that Boal decided to drag her out of mid-rank Agency anonymity into the unlikely role of superheroine in a planetary war against terrorism, the little ‘motherfucker’ who unearthed the one lead that would finally enable America to do away with its Public Enemy Number One.
Bigelow doesn’t burden herself with political subtleties or uncomfortable questions. There are no hints at the debate over executing Bin Laden without trial, the dissenting voices in Washington or President Obama’s role. The plot unfolds like a good old thriller whose outcome you already know, but which still keeps you on the edge of your seat.
A maniac is on a killing spree, and the list of innocent victims grows ever longer. The investigation team is clueless. Enter the new girl on the job: she doesn’t look like it with her porcelain dollface framed by lovely red locks, but she’s one tough cookie. She gets a hunch and, galvanised by her sense of justice, manages to convince the sceptical big wigs. Of course she was right all along: they finally get him! By the end of the film you’re almost surprised to be reminded that the bad guy was Bin Laden.
It’s not reprehensible to dramatise history. What is, though, is to pretend to know and show the truth when you don’t. The information is too fresh and mostly classified: we’re talking about the murkiest, most highly politicised story of the last two decades!
The film raises many moral issues, but never really tackles them. Does Bigelow actually support the use of torture, as she’s been accused? Well, it’s thanks to those “enhanced interrogation techniques” as applied on ‘detainee’ Ammar that Maya gets her first clue, i.e. the name of Bin Laden’s courier – Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti – which will eventually bring her to the Al Qaeda chief’s hideout in Abbottad, Pakistan. No water boarding, no Bin Laden!
But then again, are we sure that’s the way it happened? Actually, we’re not; it’s since been widely denied. Senate committee members testified that confessions obtained under duress were often ‘misleading’, and at any rate never produced the decisive intelligence that would lead to the top terrorist. Then why submit the audience to endless torture scenes – concern for ‘realism’? Why present water-boarding sessions as a terrifying yet efficient (hence justifiable) expedient to extract info from prisoners?
The makers of the film pleaded artistic licence, but how flippant can you be with such sensitive issues, especially when you claim you’re taking a ‘journalistic’ approach? Ultimately the film finds a lofty niche in the semantic gap between ‘reality’ and ‘realism’. With ‘realistic’, expertly re-enacted terrorist attacks and military action and ‘beautifully’ executed torture scenes, the story is as far removed from historical truth as any hyper-dramatised Hollywood production.
The final scene appropriately relegates the film to where it belongs: an intellectual and moral vacuum. A close-up of our homeland heroine, her dainty body lost in the vast empty belly of a military transport plane, her gaze lost in space. Osama is dead and she’s just been orphaned from her life’s mission. “Where do you want to go?” She doesn’t know. Chastain, who had done a decent job supporting her character so far, can’t meet that final challenge. How much more vacuity can one possibly express? MY
Zero Dark Thirty | Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (USA 2012), with Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong. Starts January 31