Column: Keeley's Corner
'Zero Dark Thirty' And Movie Controversy
Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 23:01
Controversy is a funny thing.
For the past month, as Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty has begun to open across the country and rack up awards nominations, it’s been almost impossible to read anything about the movie that doesn’t address the issue of torture. The discussion kicked off with an inflammatory op-ed by Glenn Greenwald, a political columnist for The Guardian who took issue with the movie’s supposed glorification of torture and its suggestion that waterboarding was essential to finding bin Laden. Greenwald based his initial argument on early reviews before seeing the movie for himself. Nonetheless, his fervent argument that the movie is a piece of pro-torture American propaganda has drawn plenty of supporters, from The New Yorker’s political writer Amy Davidson to Senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein, and Carl Levin, who wrote a letter to Sony Pictures calling for the studio to correct public perception about the film, which they call “grossly inaccurate and misleading.”
It’s understandable that any movie about a subject as politically touchy as bin Laden’s killing will draw controversy. But having seen Zero Dark Thirty, I find that most of the arguments against it are rather specious, and refuse to look beyond the surface. Yes, the movie suggests that torture provided at least one clue that eventually led to bin Laden’s doorstep, and according to many sources this is not strictly true. But we do know that torture was a reality of the U.S. War on Terror, and to ignore this fact would be to sanitize an ugly period of our recent history. Bigelow put it most succinctly when she said that “depiction is not endorsement.” In fact, I think Bigelow’s depiction of torture is the exact opposite of endorsement, showing in excruciating detail just how ugly and inhumane the practice is.
From the very beginning, the movie doesn’t shy away from the subject. After an opening which harrowingly evokes September 11th through the sounds of emergency calls against a black screen, the movie cuts to a secret base where a suspect is being held. We are soon introduced to the film’s protagonist, the CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke), who does the dirty business of interrogation. What is striking about these opening scenes is not only the uncomfortable detail that Bigelow shows, but also how she implicates the movie’s leads in the ugly business of torture. Maya watches the torture and does nothing—when the suspect asks her for help, she replies coldly that he can help himself by being truthful. The viewer is plunged into an uncomfortable world of moral ambiguity, in which the supposed heroes are compromised by their reprehensible actions. This ambiguous vision extends to the movie’s tour-de-force climax, as we watch the Navy SEALs break into bin Laden’s camp, killing several men and women as their children whimper and cry in the background. Up to the open-ended question that closes the movie, Zero Dark Thirty is not a patriotic apologia for U.S. policy, but a thoughtful and troubling look at the moral costs of the War on Terror.
It seems to me that the vitriol reserved for Zero Dark Thirty in some corners would be more deservedly given to a few other Oscar contenders. Take Beasts of the Southern Wild. It’s not a movie I condemn unreservedly—there are great things about it, from Quvenzhane Wallis’ precocious performance, to its moving depiction of a father-daughter relationship, to its expressive use of music and fantasy elements. But I do think there is something problematic about turning Hurricane Katrina into a fantastical parable about self-reliance. Especially since the U.S. government was so slow in giving necessary aid to its victims in 2005, there is something dubious about how the movie creates an idealized portrait of a poor, self-sufficient community that rejects government help.
Even more questionable is the depiction of the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami in The Impossible. Anyone who has seen the trailer knows that the movie focuses not on the tribulations of the local population, but on a family of rich tourists vacationing in Thailand. What the trailer doesn’t tell you is that this “true story” is actually based on a Spanish family, who have been reimagined for the movie as an English family headed by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts. It’s telling that the movie had to change its characters’ race to be more palatable to an American audience. Even though The Impossible presents itself as a sobering reminder of a too-soon forgotten tragedy, it seems to me a cynical and manipulative movie that whitewashes that disaster and turns it into a tearjerker about the triumph of the human spirit.
Call me crazy, but to my eyes, that’s a lot more offensive—and a lot less interesting—than the ambiguous ethical territory explored in Zero Dark Thirty.