CINEMA: Less Than Zero


ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 157 minutes, U.S.)

BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC I find myself in stone disbelief over a few of the things Hollywood is telling itself about three of the season’s high profile films:

1. The Hobbit’s “high-frame rate” process is preferable to film.
2. Django Unchained has important things to say about race and slavery.
3. Zero Dark Thirty is an apolitical look at C.I.A. torture and the capture of Osama bin Laden.

It was surprising to hear so many characterize a film filled with sympathetic, good-looking actors carrying out a G-rated representation of Cheney-era U.S. torture policy as ‘Facing the Dark Side’ of our “War on Terrorism.” I’m also surprised how little context people seem to have on the details and history of that policy, perhaps it is naive of me considering how constrained the debate has been on the issue in our corporate media. Regardless of director Katheryn Bigelow’s claims to the contrary, Zero Dark Thirty is a highly-politicized telling of the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, one that makes an argument that would warm even the cold, black heart of Dick Cheney. But politics aside, is it an effective film? I’d say no, at least not for me, but it did make me think about how who we are and what we believe can affect the impact of a film.

Growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, the U.S. experience in WW II still strongly defined our national identity. Kids whose fathers and grandfathers served in the war stirred a curiosity in the children of this generation and adults often invoked the nobility of the American war effort in WW II as a way to dispel negative feelings about U.S. policy stirred up by Vietnam. The proof of America’s moral superiority was the fact that our military did not stoop to the inhuman torture techniques used by the Nazis and the Japanese. The fact that they had to use torture instead of reason to advance their cause was proof of just how corrupt and immoral the world view of the Axis Powers was.

Growing up in Southern New Jersey, full of acres of woodlands, we acted out WW II scenarios far beyond the perimeter of adult supervision, and let our imaginations run wild. To this day, I continue to keep my distance from the kids who played the Nazi soldiers, who had a secret stash of Nazi regalia, dysfunctional Lugers and all. I saw kids held down and mock tortured, and I’ve seen the ‘mock’ part stripped away, where kids were humiliated and forced to cede control of their bodies with violence both threatened and delivered. That behavior haunts me decades later, it’s the closest thing I can imagine to the soul-scarring sensations a woman endures during rape.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with a black screen and scratchy disembodied audio from  trapped World Trade Center workers pleading for their lives with 911 operators. Our eyes finally open to a C.I.A “black site” where Maya (Jessica Chastain) is taking part in her first torture session. If the heart-breaking pleas of the 911 audio is supposed to stir up our fears, watching the beating of a ‘high value detainee’ is both a way of exorcizing our terror and quenching our thirst for vengeance. Maya declines an invitation to excuse herself from the interrogation room and her decision to remove her mask and face the prisoner shows us that she is ready to honestly face the ramifications of this disgusting post-9-11 torture program.

Jason Clarke plays Dan, the brutal-but-likable CIA interrogator, who more closely resembles the coolest college English professor on campus than the waterboarding spook he in fact is. As for the character of Maya, Bigelow didn’t go for an actor exuding toughness, instead she went in the opposite direction, casting the ethereally lovely Jessica Chastain. With her beautiful long red hair, delicate voice and patient sensitivity, Chastain has specialized in playing dutiful spouses and fountains of compassion, most notably as the nurturing mother in Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life. Chastain’s feminine resolve does a lot to sell us on the rightness of the choice to embrace torture: if this most caring of individuals can live with this moral hazard, the film implies, then so should we. A steely performance by Angelina Jolie would not have held the same moral force; even with jaw clenched tight, Chastain gives her character a sensitivity we certainly didn’t see on the face of Abu Ghraib’s Lyndie England.

But this is where we get the objectivity of response. What if when we are looking at these images of torture, in this case water boarding in this case, we don’t sympathize with the handsome caucasian couple inflicting , but rather the poor hunk of flesh being tortured? Bigelow certainly doesn’t make it easy to relate to the prisoner, he’s swollen and bloody beyond recognition when we first see him, but presented with this situation, I could not find it in myself to side with the perspective of the tormentors. Maybe it was all the hours I spent listening to the reports in the alternative and foreign press, which detailed the obscene, blatantly illegal actions in our detainee program. Maybe it is my memories of Alex Gibney’s damning detainee documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, or maybe it’s leftover trauma of my childhood WW II role playing, but regardless, I could not forgive or relate to the ‘good guy’ characters from this point on. You can give them humanizing attributes —  like Dan’s patient care and feeding of his pet monkeys — and you can let award-winning actors give them the subtlest of psychological shadings, but I still found myself rooting against them for their sadistic role in dangling men to the edge of death before pulling them back. As a film-goer, and more importantly as a human being, I simply could not translate the torture of the helpless —  no matter how much the ends justified the means — into the moral behavior of a heroic protagonist.

But forgetting that information from torture apparently played little role in capturing Osama bin Laden, forgetting that Maya is just an attractive fictional cipher designed to guide us through a CIA procedural, and ignoring the fact that the script is based on Agency press releases, Zero Dark Thirty is just too convoluted, talky and restrained to achieve take-off velocity as an action film. At her best, Bigelow’s films throw audacious situations at her high-def characters, with a pulp fiction flare that has served her well in goofy action hits like the surfing bank robber epic Point Break, the vampire western Near Dark and the dreamy and lean female cop thriller Blue Steel. Here, the pop trappings are gone, and the unrelentingly somber tone steals the witty spark that made Bigelow’s previous films crackle. Zero Dark Thirty‘s most novel element is to place more women at the center of this drama, giving a feminist dimension to the Maya’s struggle to make herself heard.

As a detective story, the characters we meet are too boringly stereotypical to enjoy observing and the facts, compressed as they are, don’t build upon each other. It’s basically two hours of dead ends, until the final break in discovering Osama bin Laden’s compound. The final siege is eerily reminiscent of a slasher movie’s visual language; we view the event through the perspective of the armed stalker, occasionally drawing fire, but methodically shooting all the adult men and one woman dead, while their child scream in horror. With her mission finally complete, Maya gives us the cue that we are finally free to access our emotions again, as she sheds a single tear in front of a flag-like background of stripped red and white.

It all comes off as semi-preposterous CSI episode but the more I discuss the film, the more I realize that I’m missing something. I believe it is the same alienation I felt when the killing of Osama bin Laden was first announced and the spontaneous eruption of public exultation it triggered, that collective sense of relief that the bogeyman that had been haunting the national psyche was finally vanquished. Personally, the summary execution of bin Laden left more suspicious than elated, wondering why it took place outside any legal framework and why Osama bin Laden was found unworthy of interrogation and trial. Even more troubling, now and forever more, our only source of information about the world-changing events of 9/11 would come from intelligence professionals that lie for a living. Maybe if I could have forgotten all those things, I could have shared in the anguished relief of Maya’s single wet tear. The truth is, the more you know about the bloody folly of our “War on Terrorism,” the more empty the triumph of Zero Dark Thirty becomes.