Zero Dark Thirty

I bet you were all waiting for me to weigh in, right? As a disclaimer, I loved The Hurt Locker. I loved its intensity and the fact that its main character was not entirely a “good guy”. He was reckless, unable to really function as one with his team even though it is an essential part of the job and of survival. And I loved the fact that it showed the difficulties of return.

So, ZDT. No two ways about it. It is pro-torture and it is torture porn, IMNSHO. And it is intellectually dishonest. The first thing you see in the film is the original claim that it is based on first-hand accounts. It is not fiction. It is a fictionalized documentary. At least, that is the claim being made. What you are about to see is what happened. And we all know that claim turned out to be inaccurate. That’s for the intellectually dishonest part.

Now, the torture thing. The first part of the film is torture porn. It is. The point of these first 20 or so minutes is not to horrify the audience to torture (if you need to be horrified by torture, your moral compass needs serious adjustment). It is to establish it as the source of everything that follows, the whole investigation. And throughout the film, one can see Maya intently watching tapes of other interrogations, obviously involving torture as well.

Later, Maya and her fellow agents watch Obama on television claiming that the US does not use torture and they roll their eyes (I wondered why this was not shown when Bush made a similar claim on television as well a few years earlier). And once the detainee program gets disbanded, several CIA agents keep whining about having lost their most useful source of information.

This film lies about the uses of torture (proved to be useless in terms of truthful information), while claiming to be retelling the actual truth based on first hand accounts. It places torture as the providing the initial lead that created the thread that Maya doggedly follows, substantiated along the way through more torture (alternating with more terrorist attacks, that is the rhythm of the film minus the first and last twenty minutes).

In this sense, there is no doubt either that the movie is very much pro-CIA. In the film, it is the CIA against hapless and hypocritical politicians, against changing public opinion, etc. They do their best, if only they were allowed to use what they know works: torture. Frankly, I don’t think there is any ambiguity or complexity in Bigelow’s directorial choices here.

The gender aspect – the heroism of Maya, as played by Jessica Chastain – but I’m with Peter Bradshaw on that one:

“This really is overdog cinema, whose machismo is not tempered by Chastain’s faintly preposterous, flame-haired character showing up at various locations as if for a Vogue cover shoot, at one point with some cool aviator shades.”

As with her other films, Bigelow is a very skilled director and the sequence of the assault on OBL’s compound is indeed gripping even as we all already knew some of the details, and of course, how it ended. I don’t think anyone can help have their heart pump fast during the whole sequence. The whole film, itself, is goes at a good pace and I was never tempted to look at my watch. As I said, Bigelow knows how to make movies.

One can also see a recurring theme of her on ZDT: the attraction / repulsion relationship between the main character and his/her nemesis, whether it’s OBL, or the addiction to the rush of explosions in The Hurt Locker, or the attraction to the criminal in Point Break and Blue Steel. But in this case, the film, I think, deliberately, makes the viewers complicit in its endorsement of torture.

So, it’s a well-made film, directed by a very apt filmmaker, but then, so was Leni Riefenstahl.

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