Sunday, January 13, 2013
Everybody Breaks, Bro: Zero Dark Thirty
Let's start with torture, in part because Zero Dark Thirty's depiction of torture inspired controversy even before the movie was released, but mostly because that's where Zero Dark Thirty begins, and in a way it's where it ends, too. After a brief sequence in which the horrors of 9/11 are conjured through overlapping audio clips from that tragic and chaotic day, the movie opens at a secret military base at which an al-Qaeda terrorist is being "harshly interrogated." First we see the detainee waterboarded, and later he's stripped naked, dog-collared and stuffed inside a wooden box just big enough for him to fold into — all in an effort to get him to talk. None of this is brief. Director Kathryn Bigelow doesn't exactly ogle the brutality, but she doesn't shy away from it either. The first 30 minutes of the movie, scripted by Mark Boal and inspired by insider accounts, are dominated by the physical and psychological punishment of this beaten terrorist at the hands of the CIA. That Zero Dark Thirty spends so much time here confirms that Bigelow and Boal believe these interrogations to be historically significant, one way or another. And that torture is demonstrated to be a dehumanizing experience for both sides confirms that that Bigelow gets it right.
Did controversial interrogation techniques like waterboarding lead to intelligence that led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden? It seems silly to argue otherwise. The link might not have been direct, but the nasty reality is that these techniques were used and intelligence was gathered, and it seems reasonable to assume that some prisoners cooperated purely to avoid torture in the first place, which isn't possible if the potential for torture isn't on the table. Whether torture, as an actual technique or merely as a looming threat, is effective enough to justify its use is a different matter, and not one that Zero Dark Thirty cares to examine. So what does the film "say" about torture? Mostly that we did it, for better or worse. It's part of the history of that larger event. World War II had the beaches of Normandy and Higgins boats. The "war on terror" had undisclosed locations and pitchers of water. That's the way it was.
To ask the film to take sides on the torture debate, and even more to insist that it does, is to try to fit torture into a box and demand that it cooperate. It isn't that simple, and thankfully Zero Dark Thirty doesn't pretend otherwise. The film depicts, through the scene mentioned above, that some detainees can suffer all kinds of abuse and never crack, and that if they do talk it might be nothing more than a basic animal instinct to survive — saying whatever it takes to stop the abuse. It also makes it clear, in a later scene with the same prisoner, that torture can be effective as the "bad cop" alternative to a more friendly and productive "good cop" approach to intelligence mining. And, even later, in a scene in which a different detainee says he's willing to cooperate rather than be tortured, it demonstrates that the looming potential for torture can be an effective motivational tool. So, yeah, Zero Dark Thirty shows that torture "works." But it also leaves room to speculate that part of the reason it took so long to locate bin Laden is because the CIA and military couldn't come up with a more effective approach for hunting him down.
In some films, this kind of ambiguity would smack of gutlessness or faux complexity, but not here. No, here, Bigelow and Boal bravely refuse to oversimplify the unavoidably complicated — at least when it comes to torture. Other parts of the film feel a little too neat, particularly the way Boal funnels all of the momentum, tenacity and canniness of the hunt for bin Laden into a single character, Jessica Chastain's Maya, who comes off like a less reckless but equally omnipresent version of Homeland's Carrie Mathison. But such narrative efficiencies are mostly unavoidable, and because Zero Dark Thirty isn't about profiling "The Woman Who Brought Down Osama bin Laden" they're inconsequential, too. The film's approach is to recount the milestone moments in a manhunt that took years and was notable for being of great interest (bin Laden was America's most-wanted terrorist) and yet little urgency (bin Laden seemed so removed from the day-to-day operations of al-Qaeda that some wondered if he was anything more than a symbolic target). And it does exactly that, with Bigelow and Boal going so far as to separate each milestone into its own distinct chapter and only getting personal in order to reveal some of the swirling emotions motivating the CIA's actions, be they noble, ugly, foolish or something else.
All of this makes Zero Dark Thirty a departure from Bigelow and Boal's previous collaboration, The Hurt Locker, highlighted by an awesome performance from Jeremy Renner, which is designed to take us into a soldier's experience. With a few notable exceptions, this is a remarkably unemotional film, and sometimes it struggles when it strays from that reserve. (For example: Maya is almost exaggeratedly repulsed by her first exposure to torture, only to suddenly turn the corner and embrace physical punishment a few scenes later, an evolution that isn't exactly "developed.") That emotional distance serves the film's air of journalistic authenticity, making its Hollywood flourishes more obvious while appreciating the discovery and execution of bin Laden as evidence of American might rather than evidence of American character, which is a welcome break from the jingoistic norm.
Once the debates over Zero Dark Thirty's depictions of torture die down, what we'll remember about the movie is its depiction of the attack on bin Laden's compound, which is void of macho swagger (if that's the least embellished portion of the movie, it wouldn't surprise me). To the credit of an elucidating 60 Minutes interview with one of the members of SEAL Team 6, I had a good idea of how everything would unfold, but that credit rolls the other way, too. Bigelow presents the action from the soldiers' collective perspective — if they don't know if someone is lurking around the other side of a corner, we don't know either — which is a fitting way to portray an operation in which so much was known but so many blind spots remained, right up until the end. Speaking of which: When bin Laden is shot, there's nothing cinematic about it — he's a flash of movement in a doorway, and then he's gone. Many filmmakers would have been tempted to approach the scene closer to the way Tarantino shot the projection room shootout in Inglourious Basterds: with dramatic music and slow motion. But bin Laden's death was everything that 9/11 wasn't. It was brief, unremarkable and in front of a limited audience. Credit to Bigelow for staying true to that.
Despite knowing the Xs and Os ahead of time, what I couldn't appreciate until seeing it here was the patience of the strike on bin Laden's compound — assuming the film is even close to accurate. So many war movies portray military bravery through daring dashes across open spaces under enemy fire, but this one makes it clear that it took balls just being there, which helps explain why the strike wasn't authorized until everyone was convinced (within reason) that they'd find what they were looking for. Zero Dark Thirty ends with a shot that recalls The Graduate, of all things, with Maya on a plane back to the United States having found exactly what she was looking for but apparently without a clue what to do next. It's a shot that, like the torture scenes at the start of the film, implies the great lengths that someone like Maya would resort to in order to achieve success — making the hunt for bin Laden the sole focus of her life. And at the same time the shot also comments on the country's obsession with bin Laden. In the end, we got our man, and what we were left with was ourselves, and a lingering awareness of all we gave up in order to win.
Additional Thoughts ... Full of Spoilers:
* Although the raid on bin Laden's compound is easy to follow, while still giving a sense of the unavoidable "fog of war," Bigelow drops the ball a bit in the retreat. Unless I missed something, Bigelow shows two helicopters arriving and one of them crashing; then it shows one helicopter evacuating with men still on the ground; then it shows two helicopters landing safely back at the base.
* "I'm the motherfucker who found this place." That line, by Maya, is supposed to be Zero Dark Thirty's equivalent of "I'll be back." It's a good line. But it was better before Mark Duplass' character underlined it by repeating it with raised eyebrows. Great movie lines are allowed to own the moment.
* "We're all smart, Jeremy." That line, by James Galdolfini's nameless CIA director (read: Leon Panetta) in response to praise for Maya's smarts, has me puzzled. Is it meant to suggest defensiveness, as if Maya found bin Laden by being lucky, not by being gifted? Is it meant to skewer sexism, as if Maya's intelligence would be taken as a given if she were a male agent? Is it meant to remind the audience that the CIA is full of smart, hard-working people, and so finding bin Laden took a long time simply because the task was hard? Something else?
* As much as it was nice to see Maya portrayed as a strong, tough, determined woman — and without removing her femininity — I was a little disappointed by the number of scenes in which the men around Maya regard her like some PMSing bitch whose intensity is regarded as melodrama.
* I'm torn in regard to the device in which Maya notes the days of inaction on the office window with a red marker. It's a little corny, which is an out-of-place mood in this picture. And yet it conveys that period of inactivity between "discovering" bin Laden and taking action much better than if Bigelow had simply flashed some dates on the screen.
* I'm no fan of torture, but whenever someone suggests that torture is purely ineffective I think of that poor guy's head in a vise in Casino. Just watching that scene makes me want to start talking. What do you want to know?