The Trouble with ‘Zero Dark Thirty’
Controversy attaches to Oscar nominations as reliably as it does to American actions in combating terrorism (which isn’t to equate the type or degree). Rarer is the case when it overlaps.
The absence of Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow from the nominee list for best director has some wondering whether something else is afoot, something in fact related to the events Zero Dark Thirty depicts. The movie is frank in its portrayal of what was euphemistically termed “enhanced interrogation,” and there’s a scene that has gained some scrutiny for possibly suggesting that torture helped extract key information in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Now the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, whose Democratic members have long contended that torture played no role in revealing clues to bin Laden’s whereabouts, wants to investigate whether Bigelow and screenwriter Michael Boal were used by CIA consultants on the film to advance CIA propaganda—namely, that torture was used and thus is effective. The committee may go so far as to examine records of CIA officials’ contact with the filmmakers.
The scene in question is murkier than the reaction from the senators and other concerned viewers might suggest. If anything, it leaves the impression that the detainee subjected to stress positions, water-boarding, sleep deprivation, and other torture techniques was rendered incapable of lucid response, to say nothing of offering what has come to be known as actionable intelligence. But neither does the movie use the moment to make plain that torture did not work. What the movie does is show torture, as we have come to understand what that entailed in the years that members of the Bush administration were systematically redefining it and lowering barriers to its use.
Yet whether it “worked” or not is beside the point. In depicting torture, the filmmakers had the opportunity to take a moral position on its use. But they didn’t, at least not in any obvious way. Should Bigelow and Boal be faulted for this? Zero Dark Thirty is a creative representation of “actual events.” Its power as a dramatic work lies mainly in the chase—the gains and the setbacks, the details of forensic procedure and surveillance, the persistence of the protagonist (played by best actress nominee Jessica Chastain). There is no character development to speak of; the principles are pose-able action figures programmed to deliver TV-grade dialogue and stare intently into computer monitors. None is shown to be troubled by what the detainees suffer; none questions orders or methods; none contemplates the ramifications, not even expressively in solitary moments. The only thing that bothers anyone is the apparent lack of useful leads.
Fine—let the viewer make his or her own judgment. But the movie does not establish a thematic or aesthetic space in which a viewer can do so. The CIA operative conducting the most brutal of the interrogations—and meting the punishment out directly—is rugged and intelligent, quick with the quips, dashing in his scruffy beard and dusty jeans. He doesn’t brood or agonize. He’s cute, as a female operative notes, and there’s a frisson of sexual attraction between him and the Chastain character (the other female operative character explicitly raises the prospect of physical intimacy). What is one supposed to make of this? What is one supposed to make of the scene in which he’s near tears beside an empty cage because the monkeys he’s kept as pets have been confiscated? That there’s inner kindness and depth, or that there’s madness? What about when he’s shown later, having returned to Washington, clean-shaven in a shirt and tie, efficiently and articulately contributing in high-level meetings at CIA headquarters? That torturers might also come in suits? That he’s civilized? That really he’s just a simple technocrat whose actions in Afghanistan were solely the result of the unforgiving environment into which he’d been thrust?
Maybe the nature of their work governs against real-life agents possessing agency. But when they’re characters in movies, they really should have some. Their creator cannot take cover behind the flimsy screen of objectivity when so much subjectivity is otherwise at work. A filmmaker devises the dramatic situations that define character, so that the character might act in response to the situation, thus becoming more defined as a character in the process (and yes, that includes morally defined). Whether the filmmakers’ elusiveness on this point is intentional or the result of faulty execution amounts to the same thing: They get to have it every way they want—praise not only for “unflinchingly” portraying violence, but also for providing sexy heroes, riveting action, and a satisfying ending, in that the objective of the actual mission is met. Thus too is the cynically cinematic one.