Here are we again. Another predictable film. Another film which keeps you engaged, tense and uncertain despite the high-profile story. First it was Argo – taken from a still relatively obscure true source – a film with a plot you could have guessed given the set-up without seeing a minute of the film. As we said, though, there was much there going on which means that Argo is a genuinely tense and riveting work.
So to Zero Dark Thirty, arriving on a wave of controversy and award nominations; the former being the sort of the publicly raging opprobrium which means that the high-profile latter are unlikely to translate into shiny new statues. It’s from a more recent, more public story than Argo. As has been hard to avoid recently, Zero Dark Thirty is the latest film from Kathryn Bigelow, whose previous film hit awards gold with The Hurt Locker. As has also been impossible to escape, the film has been accused of condoning the CIA’s torture, as it tells the story for the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. In a variety of sources, I’ve heard the director accused of hastening moral decay and being compared to a Nazi propogandist. Boycotts of the film have been suggested.
There’s not much I can tell you about the plot – it’s all in the public domain, and it’s not as if the ending’s in any doubt for anyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the last few years. What it presents to us is a stark, disturbing, brilliant portrayal of the cycle of wickedness we too easily find ourselves in. The film starts in darkness; a black screen and the simple statement that what follows is based on first hand accounts. The words fade, the date September 11, 2001 appears and fades and a confused soundtrack of emergency calls, hurried conversations with loved ones and various officials plays. Then we’re into the torture and years of following paper trails, detainee testimonies, please for more resources, punctuated by the violent explosions of subsequent attacks. It’s physically dark – even in the Middle East sun the light seems slightly muted, much of the rest of film taking place in darkened rooms or at night; it’s emotionally dark – if the 9/11 recreation was harrowing, for this Brit who lived in London at the time the 7/7 bombings, that re-creation was almost unbearably hard to watch. It’s morally dark too – central character Maya, the one obsessed with finding Bin Laden – starts standing uneasily on the edge of torture. By the end she greets an Obama declaration on a televised interview that the USA will cease to torture with nothing more than a hint of passing interest. She’s long since passed the point where she cares what she needs to do to find her target.
This is where some of the complexities throw, for me, some ironic light on some of the criticisms. The film presents torture as part of the process – a part of the process which degrades and numbs and dehumanises the perpetrators as much as the detainees. Maya’s descent into obsessed coldness slowly shuts out the rest of the world, with the end result of her, sitting alone in a military transport (because she’s ‘so important’, she’s told), speechless and shaken having seen Bin Laden’s body, tears breaking on her cheeks. She’s relieved, she’s successful – but she has nothing to return to. Simply put, I cannot see how this film can be understood as condoning torture. It simply presents it. Now there may be issues with the veracity of what is presented as fact; but sometimes Truth doesn’t have to be entirely true. It is most likely not entirely true; it is one interpretation of years’ worth of events in the space of two and a half hours. We can debate which interrogation aided or obscured the obtaining of which facts; what isn’t disputed is that some Americans, in what they believed was service of the country, tortured detainees to get information. They water-boarded; they crammed them into tiny wooden boxes; they stripped Muslim men naked in front of American women; they beat them; they put them in stress positions and exposed them to deafening noise. In Zero Dark Thirty we see it all – the success or otherwise is unclear, but the effect on all in the room is stark. Dark things are done in bleak, hollow rooms where time of day has no meaning. It’s a black hour for all involved (the title is a military term for half-past midnight, the hour the final attack on Bin Laden was launched).
So the film shows us the moral whirlpool which engulfed, and continues to engulf, so many. To catch mass-killers, to create any sense of safety from numerous future attacks, moral compromises were made. Is that condoned or condemned? I’m not sure it’s condemned, but it’s certainly not actively condemned. Does that mean the bravery and sacrifice of some involved can’t be honoured? Of course not. The whirlpool leads to chaos. The climactic assault on Bin Laden, at the titular time is pitch black and shot through with scarcely controlled chaos. We know how it will end, but still it’s throat-grabbing tense; with the added moral confusion that you can’t shake the awareness that you are watching the recreated death of actual people. People who were the parents of the presumably still living children whom the American soldiers shield from the worst. Even in the most tense and exciting moments, Zero Dark Thirty allows us no easy moral out.
This, then, maybe the source of the controversy the film has courted. Previously Bigelow has been praised for what some perceive her take on masculinity – what is seen by some as films about men shot through with testosterone. All of which is, of course, a form of prejudice which insults both women and men; it carries the implication that if a woman makes a film about a military subject it must be because she wants to talk about men (not, you know, the bigger issues of war and militarism). There’s also the whiff there that men make one type of film, women another. Well that’s shot to shreds in this film. We have strong women who are, well, women and strong and as affected by what they do as the men. Maybe Bigelow actually just makes films about people.
Maybe it’s having that interperative rug pulled from under them which has made some so vitriolic in identifying her non-existant support of torture. Many of those so vocal on this were the same ones who lined the streets of New York shouting and singing the day of Bin Laden’s death. They want, some of these people, the celebration, the victory, the evil mastermind vanquished but not to have to face what that has done to those who have actually done it. That’s not to excuse what they may have done; that’s not to dishonour bravery and sacrifice even as we critique – but what Zero Dark Thirty does so powerfully is show us the moral and physical cost of doing in secret the result of which was so loudly trumpeted in public, show us just how low the self-styled leaders of the free world (and in this I include my native Britain) sunk to bring catharsis. It seems to me that in asking such questions, Bigelow has exposed a deep moral confusion at the heart of the Western response to the still young century’s defining global conflict.
Zero Dark Thirty is a better, more urgent film than The Hurt Locker, a film which also probed the addictive drug that war becomes to those who have to actually do it. It asks deeper questions and asks us to look at means at well as ends. It asks us to think and choose, to qualify and query, to pause and consider what has become of us. As a Christian, my vocabulary gives me the language of universal sin and redemption universally offered. That’s the sort of journey Zero Dark Thirty takes us on; it’s not a comfortable or easy one. It is emphatically important to take it nevertheless.
I rated this film 8/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com