chris kilby -> RE: Zero Dark Thirty (28/2/2013 11:50:08 AM)
As a thematic and stylistic companion piece to Kathryn Bigelow’s last film, Zero Dark Thirty is virtually (and visually) The Hurt Locker 2. Written by Mark Boal, it’s also Blackhawk Down 2 but with a happier ending. Except for Osama bin Laden, of course.
The ten year hunt for bin Laden ended just eighteen months before Zero Dark Thirty’s release. Too soon? It was more than a decade before America was ready to confront the trauma of Vietnam on the big screen. But when is the right time? Was All The President’s Men too soon? Or United 93? It’s never too soon for the first draft of history with all the controversy that inevitably entails.
And controversy has stalked this film as doggedly as its obsessive heroine pursues Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty has been wildly accused of condoning torture. But does it? It’s a good question with no easy answers. But it’s telling that the film has been accused of “propagandising” by both left and right on both sides of the Atlantic. Always a good sign in my book, it suggests the film must be doing something right. Like the BBC.
No-one has accused Zero Dark Thirty of pulling its punches though. Far from shying away from torture, its excruciating first act unflinchingly focuses on the “enhanced interrogation” of al Qaeda terrorist suspects to an almost forensic degree. Indeed it is this dispassionate depiction of the torture and degradation of prisoners at CIA “black sites” around the globe which has proved so controversial. But is the coldly objective depiction of torture tantamount to condoning it?
Zero Dark Thirty’s somewhat unique production history has a bearing on this. Originally conceived as a film about the failure to capture bin Laden, this clearly changed after the decisive events on the night of May 2nd 2011. So what perhaps started out as a film which condemned torture as ineffective and even counter-productive may have ended up inadvertently condoning it. Context (and timing) is everything.
Zero Dark Thirty would be a very different film if bin Laden was still alive. And that’s what is so compelling about it. Traditionally, Hollywood is slow to keep up with current events for obvious reasons. But just 18 months on from the killing of bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty feels ripped from the headlines.
The film certainly doesn’t revel in torture and nor do we. Nor are we supposed to. These scenes are disturbing and intentionally so. But neither explicitly condoning nor condemning torture and letting audiences draw their own conclusions has wrong-footed some and left others indignant with rage.
Maya (the increasingly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) is initially shocked by what she sees and so are we. But she soon becomes desensitised and complicit; accustomed to treating torture matter-of-factly as if it’s nothing out of the ordinary. And so do we? I suspect Bigelow might be making a wider point here. It’s telling that Zero Dark Thirty’s “interrogators” know themselves how uncertain their constantly shifting moral high ground is. And how subject it is to the whims of politicians and the ballot box. Maya is warned not to be the one left “holding the hose” when the political terrain inevitably shifts again.
Zero Dark Thirty goes out of its way to humanise torturer and victim. The protracted torture scenes are Pinteresque in their almost unbearable intensity while the prisoner’s predicament is a Kafkaesque nightmare. Torture takes its toll on torturer and victim alike - hey, torturers are people too! While Zero Dark Thirty thankfully draws the line at portraying its torturers as fluffy or sensitive, that they are so matter-of-fact about what they’re doing in a just-following-orders sort of way is arguably more chilling than if they were sadists who enjoyed their work.
The “enhanced interrogation” sanctioned by the Bush administration was stopped by Obama on whose watch bin Laden was finally hunted down. The question is, was this the result of torture or a combination of hi-tech surveillance and good old-fashioned legwork? Did the CIA get bin Laden because of torture or despite it? Zero Dark Thirty seems deliberately vague and ambiguous on this point also.
Does torture get results? Is it counter-productive? And is it ever morally justified? Do the ends really justify the means? Or just successful ends? Is torture a necessary evil? Or just evil? These are important questions which aren’t necessarily as black and white as we might like and it’s good that a successful, mainstream Hollywood movie should address them in this way. There’s been a lot of sound and fury generated by Zero Dark Thirty, most of it signifying nothing. But love it or loathe it (sight unseen in some cases) there’s no denying it has fuelled an important debate. And this is good.
So is Zero Dark Thirty a good film? Yes. Does it condone torture? I really don’t know. Does Dirty Harry condone its antihero’s overt fascism? (Well, yes, probably. But that’s beside the point.) While Zero Dark Thirty may well be cynically having its cake and waterboarding it, I do think it lets the audience decide. Or it could just be a cynical cop-out. Who knows?
I’ve always admired Kathryn Bigelow, but much as I enjoy The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty I still prefer her early, funny films. The Hurt Locker was good but not that good and, garlanded with Oscars, it is a bit overrated. It’s been quite the career renaissance though. Following a mid-career slump, Bigelow (who started out as an avant garde New York artist and student of feminist icon, Susan Sontag) has gone from a purveyor of sleek, slyly satirical/subversive action flicks to the doyen of stripped-down, pseudo-documentary war movies - from Jane Cameron to Overly-Earnest Hemmingway.
Shot in Bigelow’s now-signature, hand-held, verite style, Zero Dark Thirty (like The Hurt Locker) is more Paul Greengrass than James Cameron. At least until the nailbiting climax which out-Aliens Aliens. Only this is real. As real as it gets. And the hardware is even more futuristic looking -sci-fi stealth choppers straight out of Area 51, no less. Like Predator without the Little Richard.
This is powerful, even shocking stuff. The unimaginable horror of 9/11 is evoked by a harrowing audio montage of terrified 911 calls over a funereal black screen while the chilling re-staging of 7/7 is uncomfortably close to home. Yet there is still the odd laugh. Some intentional. (“Kinda like Gandalf/Who?”) Some not-so intentional. (All that talk of “Faraj” had me thinking the CIA was after UKIP!)
“You got any friends at all?” Maya (fictional, real or a composite?) is a study of the terrible personal, emotional and physical toll of such a mission. Obsessive? (“I’m the motherfucker who found this place!”) Or just diligently professional? “You’re fucking out of your mind,” she’s told. Possibly, maybe. Although action heroes rarely have their sanity so openly questioned. Another point to Bigelow. Indeed, without Maya’s obsession and occasional emotional outburst (understandable under the circumstances) this would be a very cold film indeed. Jessica Chastain humanises Zero Dark Thirty, especially at the end when, mission accomplished, Maya finally reveals her all-too-human vulnerability. Unsurprisingly for a Kathryn Bigelow film there are prominent roles for women in front of and behind the camera – Jennifer Ehle also excels - which is refreshing in a film like this and distinguishes it from the more testosterone-fuelled Hurt Locker.
The huge cast is uniformally excellent although there are a lot of often distracting star cameos. Mark Strong does his best Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross explosive turn by coming in, banging the table, shouting at everyone then pissing off again. And the thought of John Barrowman (yes, John Barrowman!) alone in a lift with James Gandolfini really doesn’t bear thinking about. Imagine the possibilities. Just two degrees of separation between The Sopranos and The Krankies for a start – FANDABIDOZI!
It is very talky though and there are a lot of middle-aged men in suits. There’s also an awful lot of staring at computer screens. The curse of modern cinema, I’m developing a bit of a twitch about this. Not even 007 is immune to it! And I could have done without the personal revenge subplot as well. But that’s “HUMAN ERROR” for you. (Covering such a long timespan, Zero Dark Thirty is unavoidably episodic. But this is only emphasised by the chapter headings like a book.)
It’ll be interesting to see what effect the passage of time has on Zero Dark Thirty’s reputation. Or how it compares with future films about “The War on Terror” which benefit from hindsight. Whether it condones or condemns, propaganda or not, Zero Dark Thirty is a bold piece of film-making and a remarkable achievement. First drafts of history don’t come more evocative or immediate than this. Or as exciting. Is that so wrong? A tad morally questionable perhaps. But Zero Dark Thirty is anything but jingoistic or triumphalist. It might be flawed,but Rambo this ain’t.