Walking out of a screening of the compelling and disturbing Zero Dark Thirty a couple of weeks back, two things occurred to me. The first was that I’d just seen my favorite movie of the year and the second was that it was likely going to inspire a great deal of whining and hand-wringing on both the political left and the right. I figured the right would interpret the film’s unflinching, uncompromising and unpleasant look at torture as somehow being critical of the United States and therefore unpatriotic. The left, I assumed meanwhile, would accuse the film of being pro-torture simply because it is not anti-torture. It turns out I was half right and the sad truth is that the only ones to have taken the bait are my fellow liberals exactly along the lines I predicted. The irony is that the very thing that transforms Zero Dark Thirty from being a very good film to being a brilliant one – its unwillingness to take a moral stance on the unfolding events of the hunt for Osama bin Laden as uncomfortable as they may be – is exactly what has led to the moral outcry.
In a negative review of the film in the Christian Science Monitor, critic Peter Rainer complains, “What I find troubling and infuriating is that by turning the hunt for bin Laden, however expertly, into a glorified police procedural, Bigelow neutralizes the most controversial and charged aspects of this story … By showing scenes of torture without taking any kind of moral (as opposed to tactical) stand on what we are seeing, Bigelow has made an amoral movie – which is, I would argue, an unconscionable approach to this material.”
I disagree. Yes, the film is unarguably amoral in that it never tips its hand to tell the audience what to think of the horrors unfolding relentlessly before them, but screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow trust their audience to be properly queasy about what they’re seeing without forcing the point. If you’re not deeply disturbed by what you see in Zero Dark Thirty, there is something wrong with you, not with the film. Zero Dark Thirty is amoral, but that doesn’t make it immoral and Rainer’s outrage is misplaced.
Interestingly, it’s not just people who didn’t like the film who are troubled. Even as he chose Zero Dark Thirty as the number one film of 2012 for Vulture Magazine, David Edelstein opened his positive review of the film calling it “The most neutral-seeming ‘America Fuck Yeah!’ picture ever made.” He goes on to add, “As a moral statement, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline fascistic.” Neutral-seeming? Yes, of course, but that doesn’t make it an “America Fuck Yeah!” picture any more than the satire from which that phrase comes (Team America: World Police). A truly fascistic picture would be one that strong arms the audience into a specific point of view. Of course, in this case, what Edelstein means is that the film nearly celebrates fascistic behavior, but this too is wrong-headed. Edelstein says later in the review, “The best theory I’ve heard for the movie’s vantage is that Boal fell in love with his C.I.A. sources and embraced their perspective wholeheartedly.” This is his biggest misread of a film he purports to love. Taking the perspective of the C.I.A. and narrowing the story to that point of view is not “embracing” that perspective. It’s establishing the C.I.A.’s actions as a fact, for better or for worse, and then challenging the audience to decide what to make of it.
What Edelstein and others don’t seem to understand is that the moral quandary they feel is entirely by design. One part of the film that is not explicitly told from the perspective of the film’s hero Maya (the C.I.A. operative wonderfully played by Jessica Chastain) is the pre-title opening sequence consisting of a claustrophobically black screen where all we hear are the panicked voices of the victims of 9/11 calling their loved ones or contacting 911 operators. It’s a disturbing reminder of that day and it instantly recalls our collective horror, sense of violation and yes, eventually, our lust for revenge at any cost. Consumed with that lust, we as a nation mostly turned a blind eye toward a government that systematically stripped its own citizens of rights and committed still-unknown horrors against the citizens of the world in an often ugly decade in which we hunted down the man we held responsible. Has it really been so long that we’ve already forgotten the images of people celebrating in the streets when news came out that our soldiers had found and murdered bin Laden? By showing the questionable torture and the murder itself complete with screaming women and innocent children, Zero Dark Thirty forces you to make a gut check and to ask whether you’re really OK with these things. What’s more, by not wagging its moral finger at the events depicted in the film, we’re not let off the hook for what happened. We don’t get to have the moral high ground by a pointing of fingers and a placement of blame. We too are implicated in the deeply unpleasant and highly morally questionable pursuit of our worst enemy.
Ultimately what’s really bothering the complainers is that they don’t trust the audience to make up its own mind and that Zero Dark Thirty clouds the issue by being exceptionally entertaining. They want a movie that is resolutely anti-torture and Zero Dark Thirty is simply not that movie. In an op-ed piece for The New Yorker, Jane Mayer describes the well-documented domestic and international outrage at the C.I.A.’s behavior since 2001 and the controversy around whether torture is even useful. She finds Zero Dark Thirty “falls disturbingly short” by not telling this part of the story. She goes on to say, “Kathryn Bigelow, milks the U.S. torture program for drama while sidestepping the political and ethical debate that it provoked. In her hands, the hunt for bin Laden is essentially a police procedural, devoid of moral context.” This is wrong. Bigelow is not milking the drama. To the contrary, with its harrowing depiction of C.I.A. methods, the film is inviting the audience to bring its own moral context.
Where Mayer comes closest to scoring a point is when she says, “The film also seems to accept almost without question that the C.I.A.’s ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ played a key role in enabling the agency to identify the courier who unwittingly led them to bin Laden.” Thinking about it afterward, I did wonder if the film would’ve benefited from a scene where someone in it questioned whether what they were doing was right or even useful. I’ve since decided that the film’s laser focus on what really happened is more of a benefit than a detriment. Zero Dark Thirty‘s mission is to show you, as best as Boal and Bigelow can determine it, what happened in one of the most important decades in our country’s history. Mayer’s further claim that the movie shows that evidence collected by torture led directly to the eventual capture of bin Laden I’m a little less clear about. I’ve only seen the film once, but my biggest memory about that is that evidence from torture led to a major dead end in the film and not directly to bin Laden. If anything, the source of the ultimate link to bin Laden is much murkier and perhaps not declassified at this point. Indeed, in referring to a piece in the New York Times by Scott Shane, Mayer herself admits that “so little is publicly known about the C.I.A.’s erstwhile interrogation program that it is nearly impossible for outsiders to assess the facts with total confidence.” Exactly. While I don’t believe Zero Dark Thirty is “assessing the facts with total confidence,” I’ll be more comfortable about that when I see the film again.
To my mind, the moral ambiguity that is so bothersome to so many people is exactly what makes Zero Dark Thirty a more powerful film than Bigelow and Boal’s previous triumph The Hurt Locker. The latter film’s message about the excoriating effects of war on the people who fight it was a teeny bit too obvious. By holding its cards much closer to its vest on the other hand, Zero Dark Thirty is a far more challenging and disturbing film. It is designed to encourage debate rather than make a statement. As such, I suppose I should be happy that’s exactly what appears to be happening, whether I agree with the various arguments being made against it or not.
Filed under: Opinion