Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow - USA) 157 minutes
How wicked must a film be before its moral transgressions irrevocably outweigh its artistic merits? In film history there aren’t many clear examples. Leni Riefenstahl is still celebrated for the splendour of her compositions (while horror at the subject matter is forever emphasised); cinephiles manage to savour Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible without reminding themselves too much of the Stalinist echoes therein; Birth of a Nation is known to all film lovers as a despicable apologia (or rather, recruiting film) for the Klan but that has not, over the years, dented its critical reputation.
Zero Dark Thirty’s sin is of a lesser magnitude than any of those but it is a sin it wears rather heavily, like the albatross around the Ancient Mariner’s neck. I will return to that sin later in this review, even if I imagine most readers are already familiar with it, regardless of whether they have seen it or not. In the meantime, I will say there is a lot that is objectively good about Zero Dark Thirty.
Kathryn Bigelow has long been an underrated but persistent director within Hollywood and her recent success dramatising post-9/11 US military operations is not too surprising, even if her relish for the task might be questionable. Personally, I didn’t care much for The Hurt Locker — it was brooding and facile for the most part and you didn’t need to have combat experience in Iraq to see how improbable much of it was — but it was, as Andrew Sullivan put it, ‘the least bad Iraq war film’ (at least at the time of its release). Zero Dark Thirty is a far more accomplished film, however troubling it might be.
Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of the tenacious CIA operative Maya is a terrifyingly realistic study in lonesomeness — you might even say it is the best ever depiction of a writer on the big screen. Chastain — a brilliant actress who has built up a head of steam faster than most in her short career — captures the graduation from intelligence nobody to self-confident crack agent perfectly. It is, at the risk of labouring a point, a perfect artist’s progress. Bigelow’s direction is also superlative, be it for quiet contemplative scenes, scenery-chewable CIA meetings or big, fuck-off action sequences. Mark Boal’s screenplay has a spark to it that is rare for a Hollywood film and an aversion to pretentiousness that is even rarer. Then there is Alexandre Desplat’s minimalist score, which was ringing in my head as I left the cinema.
So that’s the good. Now, here’s the bad. Bigelow and Boal have chosen to tell us that intelligence gleaned from torture led to Osama bin Laden’s location and killing. This is in contradiction of the official US line on the case, and also contrary to the main plank of the argument against the use of torture by the CIA and US military. Bigelow and Boal have been excoriated by both human-rights activists and intelligence analysts for this assertion. Their defence has been none too convincing either, especially when they say their portrayal of torture does not indicate approval. That might be a bit easier to swallow if a good hour of the film were not devoted to hard talk on CIA black sites where there is little confusion as to who the good guys are.
David Sirota, in his book Back to Our Future, describes how making a film with realistic military hardware is impossible these days without striking a deal with the Pentagon, which reserves the right to final script approval. This leaves me confused: if the Pentagon (and, probably, the CIA) approved the script, is it tacitly accepting that intelligence gleaned from torture did help snare bin Laden? Or is it merely trying to propagate that misconception? That is something that Zero Dark Thirty is only too happy to do, which is worrying, given the supposed break with torture that the Obama administration has effected (there are also many that would say Zero Dark Thirty embodies the real Obama position down to a tee). There will be many that will come away from the film convinced that water-boarding is not such a bad thing after all, especially if there is a ticking bomb set to go off at some remote point in the next ten years.
Which brings us to how much this egregious fabrication depreciates the film as a ‘work of art’. If Bigelow and Boal felt it necessary to embellish the tale of the hunt for bin Laden with something that is generally accepted to not be true, you have to ask: why? Was it impossible to tell this tale without recourse to an hour of lovingly-rendered torture? Or was the torture a little bit of harmless artistic license as easily explicable as the anachronistic kilts worn in Braveheart? Zero Dark Thirty is a long enough film for these considerations to have been weighed at any number of stages in the production process. That the film needed torture more than the CIA did gravely diminishes it. Yes, you can watch Zero Dark Thirty and enjoy it, but it nigh impossible to do so without realising you are giving your assent to a normalisation of torture.