Jessica Chastain stars in the troubling, infuriating 'Zero Dark Thirty' (+trailer)
'Zero Dark Thirty' avoids political bias too conscientiously.
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In a recent New Yorker piece on Bigelow and the film, the political reporter Dexter Filkins wrote: “According to several official sources, including Dianne Feinstein, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the identity of bin Laden’s courier, whose trail led the C.I.A. to the hideout in Pakistan, was not discovered through waterboarding. ‘It’s a movie, not a documentary,’ Boal said. ‘We’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the C.I.A. program.’ ”Skip to next paragraph
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In the Filkins article, Bigelow adds: “[T]he film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience.” But by not enlarging or contextualizing the meaning of the waterboarding scenes, by avoiding any sense of political partisanship, Bigelow is, in effect, judging. It’s difficult to look at these sequences in a vacuum, which is how she wants us to respond to them. I am not arguing that she should have denounced waterboarding per se. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that these brutalities helped bring down bin Laden. This is a possibility that antitorture advocates on both sides of the aisle, if they are honest with themselves, must acknowledge. The problem I have with “Zero Dark Thirty” is that, for the sake of a “boots-on-the-ground” experience, it mucks around in matters of great gravity without ever really getting its hands dirty. (Imagine what Costa-Gavras, who made "Z," or Gillo Pontecorvo, who made "The Battle of Algiers," would have done with this story.)
Dan, the almost sadistically enthusiastic interrogator, is portrayed as basically one of the guys. Maya, who is admiringly called a “killer” by her colleagues, has so little emotional resonance that she might as well be a cyborg. (She is based on a real person.) Bigelow turns her into an existential hero by the end, a lost soul whose life has no meaning once bin Laden is taken out. This is a fancy way of disguising the fact that Maya is a blank. (Is Bigelow saying that, in the “war on terror,” only the blanks can get the job done?)
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 don’t understand those critics and commentators who denounce this film’s amorality and then go on to laud the movie anyway – as if a film’s moral stance, or lack of the same, was incidental to its achievement. Are we so cowed and wowed by cinematic technique that we can afford to lobotomize ourselves in this way? Grade: C+ (Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.)