Saturday, February 9, 2013

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (2013) directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 6th February 2013

O cherished torturess, steely eyes glinting in a filthy room, the professional set of your jaw!  

O venerated torturess, LCD-lit flawless porcelain skin, ultra-clean ultra-smart trouser suit! 

O sweet torturess, flaxen hair falling cinematically across your mirrored shades, will your chariot bear his corpse?

O noble torturess, sacrificing youth and life to keep us safe, doing “what must be done”!

I’ll stop this bullshit right here.  And if you're wondering, yes, Zero Dark Thirty is every bit as reprehensible as you’ve heard.  Kathryn Bigelow has created a film where we sympathise with torturers.  Our heroes are men and women who practise dark arts like placing people in stress positions for prolonged periods, putting collars on people and leading them around like dogs, shoving prisoners into tiny wooden boxes, sexual humiliation, waterboarding and just plain old fashioned punching them in the face over and over again.  It’s a moral car crash of a movie, one where absolution for war crimes comes in the form of a teary close-up where we see just. what. the. personal. toll. has. been.

Jessica Chastain as Maya.
Bollocks to your "personal toll", Bigelow.  I couldn’t give a tuppenny fuck about the conflicted internal lives of your dead-eyed gang of war criminals.  The old joke rings true; a man sits miserably in the corner of a pub mumbling:
“This pub, this very pub we're just sitting in. I built it, with my own hands! But do they call me the Pubmaker? No! See the wall over there, that protects our town? I built it, with my own hands! But do they call me the Wallmaker? And the bridge, you know, that crosses our river, I built it, with my own hands! But do they call me the Bridgemaker? But I tell you man. You fuck one goat….”
The heroes of Zero Dark Thirty are these goatfuckers, irrevocably stained by their crimes against humanity.  It’s easy to be suckered into seeing the film as a moral swamp which no-one comes out of cleanly, but this is having your cake and eating it.  Zero Dark Thirty has pretensions towards journalism rather than entertainment, every cinematic choice is made with an eye to grounding the action, everything is muted, coldly realistic, oozing a confidence gained through meticulous research.  It’s one of those films that has the gumption to be a bit dull and difficult to follow because “this is how it went”. 

These cinematic and aesthetic tools are deployed with precision accuracy by Bigelow in a way that adds up to a moral justification of torture.  Now, I don’t believe Bigelow hungers to see prisoners humiliated and brutalised, I take her at her word when she says:
“(I’m) a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.”
But despite this she's directed a brilliant piece of PR for the CIA, a film that makes a crusading heroine out of a vicious torturer. She argues that “depiction is not endorsement”, yet the structure of the film she’s created inevitably nudges its audience towards acceptance of torture as a necessary evil.

This process begins from the opening moments.  The panicked screams of those dying in the burning World Trade Centre are played over a jet black screen.  In terms of propaganda, this is a “Why We Fight” sequence.  It sets the stakes, justifying almost every action that our heroes will take.  As far as the structure of the film goes, this makes the emotional case for revenge before we see a single photographed frame of the movie.  When we cut it’s to a CIA black site, with a terrified detainee being menaced by men in black balaclavas.  A link is thus made in our minds.  This sweaty, panicked man is responsible for the deaths we’ve just been forced to listen to.  It's crass and exploitative; the dead of 9/11 pressed into service as emotional shock troops to excuse the barbarism we’re about to see.

Real life butts into the film whenever events begin to become a bit sterile.  The action was almost literally brought home for me during the recreation of the 7/7 London bombings when the doomed bus drove past the end of my street.  The hunt has gotten a little esoteric by this point and Bigelow wants to reinforce who the ‘bad guys’ are, reminding us that the increasingly dry intelligence tactics we see actually have a purpose. 

Unfortunately, using 7/7 to show the importance of our CIA heroes’ quest is a critically flawed move.  The conclusion of the official inquiry into 7/7 found that the bombers acted independently: there was no connection with al-Qaeda and certainly none with Osama Bin Laden himself.  “The London attacks were a modest, simple affair by four seemingly normal men using the internet”.  So, not content with exploiting the final words of 9/11 victims, Bigelow now moves on to using our memories of the 52 victims of 7/7 to add emotional impact to the film.  In fact, there’s arguably more chance that the images of torture that emerged from Abu Ghraib prison and the reports of CIA “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” influenced the bombers.

This all helps underline the importance and urgency of our hero's actions.  Zero Dark Thirty is complex and methodical film that requires you to pay attention or risk losing the thread of what’s going on, but in some regards it’s also an extremely simple one.  It’s a film about "THE GREATEST MANHUNT IN HISTORY", one noble woman’s quest to catch the bad guy of bad guys.

One of the common arguments I've seen to defend this film is to claim that Maya (Jessica Chastain) isn't a hero in the traditional sense.  This is disingenuous.  Firstly no-one can reasonably claim that she isn't the audience identification character.  In the opening scenes of the film she is as visibly shocked and disturbed by the torture happening in front of her as we presumably are.  As she toughens up and learns the simple pleasure of beating the shit out of restrained prisoners of war so, apparently must we.  We are dragged along with her on her path to moral degradation. 

As disturbing as it is to see someone becoming accustomed to sadism and consumed by obsession, I can't deny that Jessica Chastain does a damn good job in the role.  She's like Agent Scully gone bad, someone who's allowed herself to become chewed up from the inside out, as if working for the CIA hollows the humanity out of you.  Her sensible,ultra professional trouser suits betray no personality whatsoever, the fluorescent lighting she's under for much of the film accentuating her bony body.  Even the sunglasses she wears tend to make her head look disturbingly skull-like.  Maya becomes death.  The destroyer of worlds.

But for all the death imagery that swarms around her, Maya is the hero of the film.  At the mid-way point she's sliding neatly into the archetype of the rogue cop, she's a maverick, but she gets the job done.  She's inhabiting her narrative heroism fully when she's scrawling numbers on her boss's door ("she gets results you stupid chief!").  Maya, inevitably, becomes the one person who sees things clearly, confidently saying she's 100% sure that Bin Laden is in his compound when everyone else is waffling through a series of bureaucratic cliches.  By the time she's standing on a runway her hair whipping around cinematically as she awaits the delivery of Bin Laden's carcass she may as well be the reincarnation of Sarah Connor. 

Maya                                                                                           Sarah Connor
That Zero Dark Thirty uses this archetype is partly what exposes the lie that it doesn't endorse torture.  If Maya so clearly occupies the heroic narrative space, then her target  Osama Bin Laden (though never seen) becomes a straightforward narrative villain.  With the story viewed as Maya's heroic ascension, the torture in the first half of the film becomes retroactively justified.  So what of the final shot of the film, her weeping as she realises she's sacrificed so much to capture this man?  This reaction is the weight of her crimes preying upon her.  Her entire adult life has been devoted to catching this man, and now that she's stared into his dead eyes she has and is nothing.  Maya looks down at the corpse of Bin Laden, and Bin Laden stares right back up at the corpse of Maya.  But though she may have sacrificed everything, the screams of those trapped within the World Trade Centre still echo in the film.  Maya's self-sacrifice becomes noble. This was a shitty job, but someone had to do it.  By any means.  

That Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture makes it, for all its considerable technical and cinematic charms, a truly vile film.  It excuses the crimes of the CIA, allows us to view torture as a viable means of extracting information and begins to normalise it in popular culture.  This normalisation is probably the most distressing consequence of all, huge swathes of the audience walking out of the cinema tutting in liberal angst at what they've seen, but on some level accepting that it was a necessary evil.

Cinema is one of the most powerful and wide-reaching forms of media in our culture.  History and war become defined in the popular consciousness largely by how they're depicted in popular film.  Zero Dark Thirty wears its disguise of journalistic pretension so well that it's destined to become the popular version of events.  When future generations look back on the War on Terror, how Western civilisation reacted to the physical and psychological trauma of 9/11 and specifically the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty will be what they watch.  What will they see?  A culture that deifies torturers; that casually inflicts pain upon the desperate; that believes that the end justifies the means, no matter how horrible.   Is this what we want to be?

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