Thursday, February 21, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

My first thought coming out of Zero Dark Thirty was “Kathryn Bigelow is not a subtle filmmaker.” The film ends with a close-up of star Jessica Chastain, just moments after successfully completing her decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden (spoilers?). In this final shot she breaks down in tears as a nameless military pilot asks her “Where do you want to go?”

The last line felt like a proverbial hammer, tactlessly beating the film’s message into me so that I didn’t miss the point. “Clearly this movie is undermining the hunt for bin Laden,” I thought, “and with this final bit of dialogue it literally begs the question ‘Was the victory worth it?’” In finding the dreaded terrorist the American characters lowered themselves to disturbing moral lows, and with this final line Bigelow was asking the audience, “What now? What does one do with the victory that cost them so much?”      

However, in talking to other viewers and reading reviews (like that of the infamously contrarian Armond White) I realized how politically motivated my reading was. Far from the biting critique I saw the film to be, I heard voices extolling the film’s detailed account of all the effort involved in the search for bin Laden. Intelligent people argued with me about whether the hunt was necessary, and explained all the good done in the world by the example made of bin Laden. Clearly I had missed something if people with eyes could get that kind of message out of Zero Dark Thirty, and so I struggled to find my stance on the film.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with a harrowing presentation of the September 11 attacks, as 9-1-1 call recordings are played over a black screen. The audience is not shown a single moment of the historic day, but we’re allowed to listen to it and remember the horror and confusion. It’s an effective, clever, and respectful way to convey the emotion and memory of 9/11, and it starts the movie off on a high note.

However, other depictions of attacks later in the film begin to problematize the opening’s artfulness. Although 9/11 was beyond portrayal, Zero Dark Thirty has no problem showing us a shooting in Saudi Arabia, or the bombing of a Marriot in Islamabad from 2008. There’s also a depiction of the London bus bombing from 2005, though the actual explosion is respectfully cheaply hidden behind a bush at the last moment.

The contrast between the depictions of 9/11 and every other instance of terrorism in Zero Dark Thirty is palpable and troubling. Further, the film’s journalistic approach to history makes the artful opening scene seem increasingly out of place as the movie proceeds. Why the special treatment for 9/11? What makes that attack stand out among the rest? Is it a difference of importance or scope? Do the victims of that attack feel pain more acutely than those of the others? Is the movie saying that 9/11 is more important because it happened to America(ns)?

While it might be easy to write off Zero Dark Thirty with a politicized answering of these kinds of questions (indeed, I almost did), to do so would sell it short. There’s no overtly pro-American agenda at work here, as any attempt to insert one would be undercut by elements like the depiction of American soldiers shooting down parents in front of their children. So why the difference in treatment between 9/11 and other attacks?

This question is (perhaps frustratingly but also brilliantly) best answered with another question: whose perspective is the film portraying? The answer is Americans, but not for the reasons you might think. Zero Dark Thirty is not a celebratory film, but nevertheless it tells its story from a distinctly American perspective.

This point is underscored by the film’s use of its protagonist and narrative focal point, Chastain’s enigmatic “Maya.” Although it remains unclear whether she represents an amalgam of real CIA agents or one specific person, by all accounts her character is given an intentionally vague background so as to protect the identities of the people who brought down bin Laden. However, the film takes advantage of this necessary lack of characterization by using Maya’s indistinctiveness as a narrative conceit. All protective purposes aside, Maya’s lack of definition is expertly used as a signal of both Zero Dark Thirty’s audience and its subject: Maya is specifically characterized to represent any — and thereby all — Americans as the hunters of Osama bin Laden and those who suffer its tolls upon them.

What do we know of Maya? That she's smart, relentless, and increasingly dedicated to the cause; that she has nothing in her life besides her job, no social life or family to speak of; that she lost something in 9/11 attacks; that she may or may not feel that she’s been spiritually chosen for her purpose. All of these qualities make her simultaneously anonymous and analogous to huge swathes of Americans. Perhaps most tellingly, we learn late in the movie that she was chosen for her job right out of high school and has, in her own words, never done anything else. Maya’s entire existence (barring her formative years) is contained within Zero Dark Thirty: we see everything she’s ever done, and so in a very real sense she is the hunt for Osama bin Laden, or at least America’s experience of it. Through her, the movie is both aimed at and about America and its hunt for bin Laden.

With this direction in mind, consider Zero Dark Thirty’s matter-of-fact portrayal of the decade-long manhunt. This approach is a far cry from “Mission Accomplished”-type political announcements and dancing-in-the-streets-in-font-of-the-White-House reverie that the history has inspired in the past. Rather this is a film that depicts the bare facts almost entirely without comment. It forces its audience to watch Americans waterboard, beat, confine, and kill in the course of that country's search a single old man.

Finally, in an incredible climactic sequence, Zero Dark Thirty presents a moment-by-moment account of the raid on bin Laden’s compound. The scene is one of the only times in the entire film when Maya is not the central focus, as the raid instead plays out from the perspective of the Navy Seals team that carried it out. Although the depiction remains journalistically faithful to the facts, it’s notable that at no point does the perspective shift to that of the residents of the compound, for whom the event must have seemed more horrific than action-oriented. This inflection is yet one more nod to the fact that Zero Dark Thirty presents history to the audience from an American perspective, and stays true to that sense of the facts at all times.

The closing shot of Maya crying against the hanging question, “Where do you want to go?” forces the audience to consider what they feel about everything they’ve just seen. The film presents its story as it was lived and perceived by America, and asks the audience as witness: was it worth it? Where does one go now/from here?

How you answer that question will be informed by your politics, and indeed my initial response to the film was dominated by mine. I still think that the notion that bin Laden’s assassination was a significant victory for America demonstrates an adolescent ignorance that verges on offensively arrogant, but then that statement is political rather than critical of Zero Dark Thirty. A contrary perspective could equally make the same assertion about my take on the film, and that is precisely its brilliance: Zero Dark Thirty uses a largely (but, again, notably not completely) journalistic approach to America's hunt for Osama bin Laden to craft a narrative that demands critical reflection on politics and history but doesn’t provide any answers. The way the question is posed might be a little clumsy, but the range of possible answers necessitates its asking. It’s quintessentially the opposite of the Spielberg-ian, beat-you-over-the-head-with-meaning approach to filmmaking that I initially perceived.

Kathryn Bigelow is not an overly subtle filmmaker, but perhaps she’s just subtle enough. Brave enough to have a voice (because make no mistake: an uncelebratory American take on the killing of bin Laden this soon after the fact is a distinct voice) but subtle enough to leave room for others. The film is a nuanced portrayal of history that accords to a distinct perception of it without asserting that perspective as the end of the conversation. It in fact specifically calls for debate as to whether that depiction is justified on its face, not to mention once other perspectives are considered. In that sense, Zero Dark Thirty is a true product of its time: a film that evidences contemporary political debate without purporting to the benefit of hindsight.

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