Sunday, January 20, 2013
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
But what does it change? When a person is punished does it take back the bad things they've done? Does it make it all better, wiping the slate clean? That's what Zero Dark Thirty, Katherine Bigelow and Mark Boal's follow up to 2009's The Hurt Locker, is asking. It's hard to talk about this movie or go into it without some sort of opinion already formed because it's been picked apart endlessly for months now. It it pro-torture? Is it responsible to make a movie like this after the whole thing in Libya? How much of a partisan bias does the movie have?
If you do want to see this movie, however, I would really recommend disregarding all of that beforehand. Because this is not just about Osama bin Laden's hunt. It's about an angry country. A country so blinded by anger that they are willing to do whatever it takes to get that revenge, the karmic balance it's been promised has to exist. It's about the cost of that promise, if it was worth the damage it did on our souls. The brilliance of the movie is that it asks us this without giving us an answer.
The opening of the movie has no visuals to accompany it. A bit of text pops up reading "September 11th, 2001." We then begin to hear noises, phone calls going out to 911 units in New York from people either in the towers or nearby. It's like a gut punch, serving as a very real reminder to what inspired the country's anger in the first place. Cut to an "enhanced interrogation" room 2 years later, where our protaganist Maya, a CIA operative tasked to finding Osama bin Laden, watchs a prisoner being questioned and, subsequently, waterboarded.
The controversy most prominent about this movie across the blogosphere is it's depiction of torture. The claim made is that the movie presents a scenario where information obtained by torture leads to the eventual capture of bin Laden. This therefore justifies the use of torture. I personally don't agree with that interpretation, but I can see how one could make that leap in logic. Indeed, the movie itself is very careful in presenting all this information without making a direct judgement call on it. At one point in the movie, CIA operatives openly lament the loss of using torture techniques. Yet I think fixating on those moments is a case of missing the forest for the trees. The movie doesn't openly condemn the use of torture because it's styled as a fly-on-the-wall approach to retelling the events. I don't want to use the excuse "that's how it happened in real life" because I don't think that directly applies to how a work of art depicts "real life". However, I think it's very clear from the jump from the opening to this is showing the kind of culture that was created as a result. The use of torture isn't justified by the events of the movie, though I'll explain that in detail in a bit, and the mention of it by the characters doesn't mean the filmmakers are endorsing it.
This is further shown by the way torture itself is depicted in the movie. It's not presented as incredibly violent or graphic, at least not in the traditional way it is shown in movies. There's very little blood, there's no dramatic screams for mercy, and there's no pleasure in doing it by the interrogators. Instead it's seen as humiliating and dehumanizing. It reminded me of Steve McQueen's movie Hunger. It's hard to call a movie "pro-torture" when the torture in it looks like that. When the country was willing to go to those lengths to find this man, when have we sacrificed our ideals and gone too far and what is justified? The movie doesn't answer this question, nor does it need to. Because as much as this movie is a procedural, going into detail about every aspect of the operation, it is also very much about the audience. The way you personally interpret the movie is as much a part of it as Katherine Bigelow's interpretation is. In order for this movie to work it's one you need to be engaging in, not just watching. In a way it has a journalistic quality to it, and while I wouldn't say it doesn't have a bias at all it does a very good job of presenting the events without a moral slant to anybody's actions.
When I say "moral slant," I mean it in a way where nobody says anything like "How dare you torture those guys!" but make no mistake that this movie has an agenda behind it. The scene that will be the most remembered from the film is the raid on bin Laden's hideout. From a pure filmmaking point of view it is astonishing, shot with both natural lighting and nightvision. It's an astoundingly tense sequence even though we all know the eventual outcome. The SEALs, who we have already met briefly and have a little idea on their personalities, become machines, making their way through the compound in a calculated yet swift fashion. It feels like a horror movie, the way they move through the house, shooting anything that moves and then giving another shot for good measure. As they climb the stairs, they whisper "Osssama" in a near hiss. It's terrifying, a far cry from a heroic assault. It's professional, just as the interrogators were.
The movie ends with the team bringing back Osama's body to base. Maya slowly walks up to it as the SEALs unload all the equipment they brought back from the compound, patting each other on the back. She slowly unzips the body bag and sees the dead man before quickly closing it. There's no smile on her face, no fistpump or anything. There's nothing. The catharsis we have been promised just doesn't come. We have seen Maya give her life into finding this man, watching friends die as a result, be privy and part of torture all for the sake of finding this guy. And there's nothing.
What was fixed by this? Is the country now more safe? Not really, it was pointed out earlier through incidents like the attempted Times Square bomb in 2010 that Osama hasn't really been all that hooked into the process anymore. Are her friends alive? Are those people screaming for help in the towers alive? No, they've killed one man. All this manpower, all this effort, all for one body in a bag. It's an exceedingly hollow victory, highlighted by the last scene. Maya gets on a military aircraft meant for moving out lots of people, but she's the only one. As she sits down, the pilot asks her where she wants to go.
We got him, so what now? And with that, Maya begins to cry.
On the Wicker Scale, which I really hate doing now cause I thought that was a nice poetic ending but I feel inclined to, it's near the top, way up there. Last year was a great one for movies and this has to be one of the best of 2012, for sure.