“Zero Dark Thirty” Review: Torture Controversy in bin-Laden Raid Movie Absurd
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have caught a lot of flack for their portrayal of torture in Oscar-nominated film Zero Dark Thirty, detailing the operation that resulted in the death of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin-Laden. Ultimately, the controversy says a lot more about the state of Hollywood than it does about the film.
Bigelow handles the loaded issue of torture in a manner in line with her cinematic vision, as witnessed in prior films such as 2008’s The Hurt Locker. That being said, her latest movie harbors, if anything, an anti-torture message, although it requires a bit of discernment on the part of her audience to notice. Fortunately, the Flatiron Hot! News critic is on hand with 800 words of discernment.
To expect a director who specializes in presenting politically and morally repugnant topics with unnerving frankness to appease our guilt with Spielbergian moralizing is not only contrary to the spirit of her work, but dismissive of film’s status as an art form capable of serious social commentary. The role of the filmmaker is not to affirm our moral convictions, but to challenge them. With that in mind, directors and screenwriters have license to deal with serious issues in a morally ambiguous fashion if they so choose. Often, this is the best way to provoke discussion on the issues of their time.
It is to Bigelow’s credit that she refrains from knee-jerk moralizing in the portrayal of U.S. “enhanced interrogation” techniques. Anyone who claims the director romanticizes torture must have been watching a different movie. The scenes that have provoked so much controversy are all the more realistic and harrowing because they are presented in such a nonchalant, matter-of-fact way.
A lack of overt commentary from the characters forces the audience to confront the horror of torture head-on, alone, without the comforting, sanitizing buzz of self-righteous pundits waxing indignant in the background. To many progressives who expect Hollywood to bend over backwards in hammering in their worldview, this degree of subtlety is grounds for condemnation.
On the other hand, those who walk into the theater without an agenda will see Zero Dark Thirty for what it is: a painstakingly detailed procedural about the search for Osama bin-Laden, examining the effects of the decade-spanning endeavor on the film’s characters. In the process of capturing terrorists following the 9/11 attacks, enhanced interrogation techniques were employed frequently and indiscriminately. Its efficacy is subject to debate, but that does not change the fact that it happened.
For Bigelow to omit torture from her film would be historically negligent. To moralize about it would make no sense in the context of the film, which self-consciously avoids moralizing. Viewers have no right to expect catharsis or easy conclusions from filmmakers, and the fact that they demand it is evidence that Hollywood has forsaken the cinematic imperative of allowing images to speak for themselves, without the need for filmmakers to funnel their own views through the mouths of their characters.
The sad man who we see torturing a detainee at the start of the film is so scarred by the experience that he requests a leave of absence Maya, meanwhile, hardly comes across as a paragon of virtue. Much like Carrie Matheson, the hard-edged heroine of Showtime’s Homeland, Zero Dark Thirty’s protagonist is a sad, empty husk of a woman who obsesses over catching the world’s most famous terrorist to fill a void in her life.
The sparse expository dialogue Maya is given highlights her personal isolation and all-consuming monomania, sketching out a petite, waifish female Ahab, not a John Wayne character, as David Thompson of The New Republic bizarrely asserts. How else could you explain the film’s closing shot: Maya sitting in an empty plane, unable to tell the pilot where she wants to go. Here, more than ever, the protagonist stands in for a damaged, directionless America, lacking a clear purpose in the world in the absence of a boogeyman to chase.
The pursuit of revenge and all the inhumanity it entails, Bigelow suggests, is indeed a bitter pill, leaving behind characters with emotional wounds as crippling as the physical wounds sustained by members of The Hurt Locker’s bomb squad. Kathryn Bigelow took a gamble on the capacity of viewers to pick up on thematic cues, foregoing the condescension so common in Hollywood films, where every point must be underscored, bolded, and howled through a megaphone for fear of going unnoticed. Judging by the shallow, uninformed bloviating that composes much of the criticism leveled at Zero Dark Thirty, she put too much faith in her audience.