Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Zero Dark Thirty
The first moments of Zero Dark Thirty are a black screen, as dark as a shroud laid over your eyes. All the audience hears are spectral voices howling in a void—the lost calls and dead signals of the victims of 9/11, a Greek chorus of horror and fear. It’s a smart decision on the part of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal to avoid the all-too-familiar stock images of the planes crashing or the towers crumbling. Do those pictures even shock anymore? Have audiences finally numbed to the pain they evoke? Perhaps they are now nothing more than visual markers of a bygone era, like footage of the moon landing or Jackie O. clutching her husband’s limp body. But the black screen and the disembodied voices, these are panic and terror alive and well, restless spirits not easily calmed. Isn’t there a superstition that those who die violently become ghosts?
If these opening moments evoke a kind of purgatory, what follows can’t be anything other than hell. A man is chained in a sun-blasted shack—location undisclosed, but it sure as shit ain’t Florida—undergoing a brutal interrogation. A CIA agent makes it clear that every lie will produce pain, but equally clear, if unspoken, is the fact that a lie is defined as whatever the CIA agent does not want to hear. Maya (Jessica Chastain), another CIA agent, stands back and watches her colleague prepares to water board the detainee (dog collars and hot boxes soon to follow). Shaken and unnerved, her discomfort is meant to stand in for the audience’s own queasiness at what we’ve just witnessed. Consider it as a kind of relief valve on the scene, which would otherwise prove to be as torturous for the viewer as the victim. There is sanity in the world, we are told by the horror on Maya’s face. There is still moral righteousness. And then her colleague orders her to fill a bucket of water to pour on the man’s face, and she obeys after only a slight, startled pause. This is the last time we will see Maya waver.
In Bigelow’s last film, The Hurt Locker, a shell-shocked soldier froze up in the grocery store, momentarily paralyzed by the limitless possibilities of the cereal aisle. By contrast, Maya, with her fiery hair and flinty confidence, projects a moral certitude at odds with ambiguity and self-questioning. Her confidence is beyond question and her determination beyond doubt. She is the self-described motherfucker who finds Osama bin Laden’s hideout. Make no mistake, Zero Dark Thirty is a revenge story, and its star is a Hamlet without hesitation. Unlike a more traditional revenge tragedy, however, there is no sense of the cost of Maya’s all-consuming quest for retribution. She acknowledges, with no sign of regret, her lack of friends and personal life. The only suggestion that she ever had any existence beyond her life as a relentless Osama-seeking drone is a computer desktop image of her holding a young girl. Is it her sister? Daughter? Niece? No answer is offered, and it seems likely the film has none to give.
As a procedural focused solely on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty clings to the shield of journalistic objectivity. Of course, the filmmakers are adamant that they are not making pro-torture propaganda (Bigelow professes to be a pacifist). However, the film’s failings have nothing to do with its views on water boarding, but rather how its supposedly detached perspective is too feeble to survive the moral challenge posed by torture—a flaw it shares with much of the western world in the years immediately following 9/11. Its much-vaunted journalistic integrity consists largely of funneling government reports and testimonials into a concise, gripping narrative (it’s easy to be objective when you acknowledge only one possible viewpoint). A brief quotation from an Obama speech reminds viewers that the current administration has disavowed torture—although one might ask how the closure of Guantanamo Bay is coming along—and with that the issue is allowed to recede into the background. The collared detainee we saw paraded around half-naked through his own filth reappears later in the film, healthy and clean, sharing a meal with the CIA agents and meekly offering up information. The effect is not unlike that of a magician bringing out the woman sawed in half earlier. See? Everything is fine. No harm done.
No. Fuck that. Harm was done. Much harm was done, to the innocent as well as the guilty, to perpetrator and victim alike. It all comes back to the Greek chorus of 9/11 victims that announces this revenger’s...well, not tragedy, that’s not right, what’s the word I’m looking for? Oh, right. Triumph. Zero Dark Thirty is a revenger’s triumph, and there’s a reason why that phrase should writhe and boil in your stomach like rancid meat. The tragedy of revenge is that violence compounds violence until all who partake are destroyed. The triumph of revenge, on the other hand, is a fantasy in which those who wield violence with righteousness will succeed over their foes (Maya even speaks as if she is on a mission from god at times). The key to the illusion is that the torture is placed in the past, neatly bracketed between the 9/11 attacks and the death of Osama. Everything before and after this brutal decade is deemed irrelevant, as if killing Osama somehow eradicates the moral stain of what led up to that moment. Torture becomes part of the post-9/11 madness, a vicious tool for vicious times. With the killer caught and the crime avenged, the curtain closes on these horrors and those terrified voices from the beginning of the film are at last silenced. More than a story of revenge, this film is an exorcism.