Zero Dark Thirty actually catalyzed my decision to create this blog. I practically felt like I had to after reading some of the decidedly bigoted responses thereto…
Now let's not get me wrong here. I more than realize that if I go seeking out racism, I lose the right to feel all that shocked by what I find. I also realize that in any remotely popular forum that allows for open commenting—such as Twitter—one can't throw a stone without hitting at least six bigots (and, one hopes, causing brain damage in the process). Nevertheless, while Stormfront, VNN, and YouTube's comment sections all have comments posted behind the comfort of anonymity, bigotry like this takes on a chilling new form when you see these comments next to a picture of a smiling human face and the writer's real name.
Above all, with this blog, I want to help contribute to a world where Tweets like those above receive the opprobrium they deserve and positive messages prevail.
Since Strange Days, director Kathryn Bigelow has honed a distinctive style that emphasizes naturalism in blocking and acting. Journalist-cum-writer Mark Boal seems to have scratched that itch for her. The dialog for The Hurt Locker felt naturalistic almost to the extent of a found-footage film. Zero Dark Thirty's dialog feels relatively more like a traditional Hollywood drama in the writing, even though the characters have their roots in real people.
I had mostly lukewarm feelings toward the film as a whole. The film's greatest weakness lies in its editing. A long stretch of time from the middle of the first act to the end of the second act feels even longer than its running time. The film relies on sporadic jump scares to reengage the drifting viewer, yet it telegraphs a major second-act tragedy at the end of an abjectly protracted scene. The third act deals with the historic execution of Osama bin Laden, which Bigelow handled well enough, although the footage feels like it should constitute an entirely separate film.
The story intrigues me inasmuch as Maya—a character based on a real-life CIA analyst—serves as a symbol for America. Her story arc takes her through coming to grips with compromising her morals, her reluctance eventually giving way to remonstrance, recalcitrance, and obsession, and, in the very final shot, her realization of how much her quest has cost her.
|Maya's reflection reminds us of her allegorical significance… if not in the most subtle way.|
Our quest to avenge our losses from September 11 took us through the PATRIOT Act, effectively invalidating the Sixth Amendment through the "enemy combatant" designation, detaining and torturing people on offshore prisons without due process, and fighting two wars so prolonged that even our high-school students have spent most of their cognizant years in the shadow of war. Maya ends the film asking herself the same question Americans should ask themselves: how much of our soul can we afford to sell as payment for revenge?
Zero Dark Thirty has already gained infamy for its depiction of torture. The films first act shows decidedly graphic and harrowing torture of an Arab Muslim detained for his role in the 9/11 attacks. I would list examples of critics who regard the film as a pro-torture panegyric, but Wikipedia already has a very, very long list of such articles.
Personally, I didn't get more than a few minutes into the film before Reda Kateb's character—the victim of torture—seemed ineluctably, crushingly human, and Jason Clarke's character—the torturer—seemed like an unfeeling monster. Although Clarke would continue to figure strongly into the story elsewhere, the stench of his inhuman, inhumane deeds loomed over him for the remainder. Not even his bonhomie with Chastain's character or his encroaching enervation came close to redeeming the character in my eyes.
Most of the torture that made the news—the sleep deprivation through loud music, the dog collars, the genital exposure before women, and of course, the waterboarding—makes its way into the film in painful detail. Bigelow depicts none of it positively. We see it all, along with the pain and begging in the victim's face and the steely anger in the torturer's face. Clarke uses ironically familiar language with his captives, reminding us that his actions reflect on us as citizens. Even considering the guilt of the men tortured, I felt absolutely sickened by Clarke's character. At no point did I feel any attempt on the film's part to exhort me to condone this behavior.
However, the film's depiction of torture does open the door for some equivocation as to whether the torture actually worked. The largest information windfalls we see happen outside of the torture, and in some cases, entirely independently thereof. Interestingly, aside from Maya's body language, we never see any CIA characters wrangle with the moral implication of torture. With Barack Obama's ascension to office, characters express regret at losing the option, but we never see any indication that right-or-wrong enters their heads.
All in all, I agree entirely with Freedom from Torture in their denunciation of the practice—and with the mission of Freedom from Torture as an organization—but I believe the film at least erred on the side of treating torture as appropriately evil and unnecessary.
The third act consists of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad. In SEAL Team 6's assault, we only see the soldiers kill adult men, with one impulsive exception that takes place in the heat of battle. At no other point do they harm women and children, and the film implies that the men they killed planned to attack them.
As for the exception… after the SEALs kill one of the men, his wife runs to his side, caterwauling in grief. A SEAL shoots her prostrate form in the back as she embraces her husband, wailing. I won't lie; I haven't decided what I think of this. I find the idea of a SEAL killing a non-combatant more than unsettling and unnecessary, but the film as a whole, really, questions the necessity of the entire operation.
The film depicts one other positive Muslim character: the Wolf, played by Frederic Lehne. One might cry tokenism, but it turns out the Wolf has his roots in a real person: "Roger," chief of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. His Muslim faith proves incidental to the plot. We merely see the Wolf praying at the beginning of one scene. Personally, I perceived the inclusion of this character as a sign that while the film opposes terrorism, it does not oppose Islam.
In fact, I would call that my net opinion of the film. I don't see the film as reifying stereotypes against Arabs or Muslims. Some people—who unfortunately use Twitter—will watch it and see only what they want to see, but I feel comfortable in saying the film won't reinforce negative views of Arabs or Muslims unless the viewer goes into it with a monolithic confirmation bias and without a fully-functioning brain.