Saturday, January 12, 2013

"The last one with the dog collar" - The viewing space of 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Spoilers herein. Not a review.

As Zero Dark Thirty goes wide this weekend, the debate surrounding it will not go quietly into the night. While it's on top of the Friday box office, it will be interesting to see if America-at-large flocks to see the movie, and if they do, what their reaction will be.

As far as I can tell, the factions for/against Zero Dark Thirty can be summed up in Glenn Greenwald's lengthy piece for The Guardian, where he argues it offers "zero opposition" to torture, and Sony's Amy Pascal, who argues in tandem with director Bigelow that depiction does not equal endorsement, and that the film is protected by free speech; it is art that examines an ugly subject.

And if you've seen the movie and have half a brain to think for yourself, you'll probably realize both of these positions are pretty reductive. The idea that the movie "glorifies" torture is patently wrong (as I'd like to hopefully talk about in a minute), and the idea that we should separate form from content and technique from ideology is, as my friend Todd Kushigemachi pointed out on Facebook this morning, an idea that goes back at least as far as film studies' insistence on keeping Birth of a Nation in the classroom.

Zero Dark Thirty is a movie of intensely ambiguous morality. I would argue it depicts torture as ugly, hideous, yet effective. I've seen much made of the waterboarding scenes -- the most fictitious moments, by some accounts -- which begs the question of "documentary" vs. "drama." It introduces from almost the opening moments the necessity and the problem of representation. It recalls Errol Morris's fantastic documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, which considered how the Abu Ghraib photographs operate as memory and as record. Morris struggles to understand these photographs as part of a larger narrative, and uses their "evidence" to construct the memories associated with them.

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, by the same token, use Zero Dark Thirty to enact representation. It seems to me the kind of problem Resnais raises in Night and Fog (though please don't assume I'm comparing torture to the Holocuast. Please, please, please. I wouldn't dare) -- how can we represent history's ugliness? This is actually a question deep at the heart of Django Unchained and Lincoln (one which tries maybe too hard, the other which evades it for other questions). ZDT is a film of image-making, be it of torture, of CIA detective work, or of the raid against Osama Bin Laden. Another friend told me she doesn't want to see the movie because she finds it "too close" to the history it represents. Which is a valid point. Why make this movie now? The proximity between Bin Laden's death and the release of this movie is actually closer than the proximity between Watergate and the release of All the President's Men (maybe the other crowning example of "movie journalism" (even though that one's about journalism)).

As far as I can assume, it's because the death of Osama Bin Laden has not only offered America one of our most celebratory, unified, and cathartic moments (despite a very provocative discussion of assassination politics in Obama's foreign/war policy), while at the same time we have not been provided an image of that death.  We have, as conspiracy nuts will tell you, never seen the body. Zero Dark Thirty is very deft at this. We know the ending of the movie. Our ostensible payoff is seeing a dead body with a bullet through its eye. Throughout the forty minute raid scene (and indeed, the entire two hours and twenty minutes leading up to UBL's death), the suspense emerges from knowing what happens (interesting to consider via an analysis of editing and perspective in the raid). But we never see Bin Laden's corpse. The shot that kills him comes from an oblique angle, obscured further by infrared camera. As much as we look -- for me, a look of shock and horror -- at bullet-ridden bodies in the compound, Bin Laden's body is stuffed in a bag and shipped out pronto. Even when Maya finally gets to look inside the bag, we stay at long shot -- we see a nose, a glimpse of beard, but our catharsis can only come through her.

I bring this up only because I think the political viewpoints Zero Dark Thirty do or do not endorse are very hard to sort through, and we need to acknowledge its deep nuance at exploring these issues. I've read criticisms that the film never questions the murder of Bin Laden and those in the compound (the logic against assassination politics being he needed to be captured and stand trial as a war criminal). But I think the film, while never explicitly talking about this, gives us space to consider it. In Maya's final confrontation with Joseph, he asks (I paraphrase from memory) what difference killing Bin Laden makes. The end of the film, when the pilot asks Maya where she wants to go, also creates this ambiguous space for us to ponder our own ideological devotion to Bin Laden's death -- killing him is revenge, as Maya makes very clear at multiple points. Far more complexly than a movie like Django Unchained -- I would argue -- Bigelow and Boal are bound up in the politics of revenge, of obsessiveness, of violence as a pervasive ideological structure countered by a bureaucracy of tacit reasoning. Maya has nowhere to go ("This is all I've ever done," she confides before they greenlight the raid), and so we must also ask -- Where does the War on Terror go from here? What does killing Bin Laden accomplish and how can we move forward as a nation?

This is, I think, part of the strength and the weakness of Zero Dark Thirty coming so close to these actual events. Because it is a film about obsessiveness, it undercuts any sense of denouement: UBL is killed, Maya boards a plane, the film ends. It leaves us in a void -- the void of the geo-political landscape, the void of the now. I don't mean to suggest killing UBL did nothing, or that it wasn't justified, or that military assassinations don't deserve debate, or whatever assumptions about my own viewpoints you might glean from this. I only suggest that the killing of UBL has been discussed, in the discourse around the film, as gung-ho patriotism, as an example of a Hollywood film being used by the CIA to promote its own ideology of violence-against-terror. I believe it's far more complex than that rather hackneyed idea (though the links between Boal and his CIA confidantes should be discussed), and we need to dig into how the form of the film presents its content. Unlike most American movies, I don't think Zero Dark Thirty tells you how to feel about anything that happens in it, and that's partially why there is so much anger directed at it, and why all the arguments for/against the film feel so one-dimensional: we are bringing our own ideologies into the film (which I think is great) but not letting the film challenge our ideas (which is what we should be doing in our discussions in a dialectical spirit).

So, let me loop this back around to torture. I don't want to talk about the visual construction of the torture spaces, or how the camera frames the tortured bodies. There's been plenty of talk about that. Rather, I would like to think some about Dan. He (and Jason Clarke, who I think deserves more ink than he's gotten. He anchors the first half of the movie for me) is crucial to understanding how the film argues about torture and those who perform it. He's also absolutely crucial for understanding how time and regime changes effect how ideologies change.

When we first meet Dan, he's harassing a detainee. He has a beard, his hair juts out from every direction. He is an animal, unchained. He can switch this attitude on and off (casually suggesting, moments later, that he and Maya "get a coffee"), suggesting it is a performance, and an aggressively masculine one. Maya, we'll remember, is the one who suggests he go back in, which leads to the spontaneous waterboarding sequence. Maya, watching this, squirms and looks away. The alteration of these views -- the waterboarding, Dan, and Maya -- and their respective shot distances begin to help us understand: Maya is still naive (though she is, in Dan's words, "a killer"), and Dan's not really in control of his own performance. We're meant, I believe, to see this as ugly, as criminal. Does Maya regret asking Dan to go back inside? I think so, even though she doesn't say as much, and even though later in the film she also casually asks for another water boarding (followed by a cut to her tearing her "protective" wig off in the bathroom -- Maya too comes to be performative, to lose any sense of her morality within her mission). This is designed, again, to provoke a complex spectatorial space: Is this effective? Is it necessary?

True, Maya and her colleagues learn a lot of information from detainees and tortured men, including the whole "Bin Laden's courier" item that sets the whole thing in motion. One man readily gives up information because he has "no desire to be tortured again." I can't reconcile the truth or the fiction of these events, and I don't think it's my job to. Lest we forget, Maya also makes assumptions about torture's effectiveness: In "The Meeting," they believe their contact will give up crucial al Qaeda info because "the Jords have worked him for over a year" -- torture works, right? So why shouldn't this guy be ready to give up his intel? Of course, this assumption backfires and costs American lives. There's also the matter of time, which people aren't talking enough about: a crucial issue in the discussions in the latter part of the film are about how the courier info is "seven years old" and was obtained "under duress." Could the CIA have learned this information within seven years without succumbing to torture? At the end of the day, did the torture speed up the process? Again, the film doesn't offer answers, but the sheer grind of time needs to be considered.

So let's come back to Dan. The film's not interested in charting the traumatic effects of those who have been tortured (make of that what you will), but it does seem to follow the effects of those who torture. Consider when Dan tells Maya he's going to leave. Look at how they're framed: in front of the now-abandoned monkey cages, the background of Dan's close-up is open landscape, the background of Maya's is the cage. Dan believes that by going to Washington, he can free himself of the stress of these cages he occupies (both as an aggressor, and perhaps growing to see himself as disgusted with his own actions). Dan says he's "seen enough naked men" (or something like that), which is supposed to be meant as a joke, an attempt at levity, but doesn't it sound so sad, so defeated? Maya, though she stands outside the monkey cage, is nevertheless meant to be seen as imprisoned, as trapped in a violent system.

When next we see Dan, years have passed. He wears a suit, he is clean-shaven, and his hair is gelled back. His animalism has been harnessed, transformed into a D.C. bureaucrat. Dan is also more soft-spoken. In the final meeting to determine the odds of Bin Laden being in the compound, he agrees that the chances are "a soft 60" percent (and look at the marvelous cuts between Dan and Maya in this sequence). He has turned his back on the information he himself procured from torture. Is this because Dan has himself renounced it? Is it because Washington's ideologies have consumed his own ("I know certainty freaks you guys out," Maya tells all the men in the room)? Is it because Dan represents the nation's changing viewpoints (that key shot of Obama on the news proclaiming, "America does not torture," which Maya watches via one of Chastain's most inscrutable close-ups) and now believes any evidence they obtained in interrogations should be disavowed? Again, Zero Dark Thirty doesn't give us any answers. But we have to ask these questions, and bring our own beliefs to bear against the film.

There's more to say here, and repeated viewings of the film should certainly help enhance everyone's discussions. Instead of trying to separate the technique and the content, film bloggers, writers, and scholars have a responsibility to advocate for looking at their intermingling. To my mind, the editing and the visual framing of this film is equally as important as the writing in understanding what it shows, what it doesn't, and why that is important for any kind of political ideology it does(n't) advocate. We shouldn't just be looking at Maya to decipher the film -- beyond Dan, I'm sure readings of Joseph (Kyle Chandler), Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), and George (Mark Strong) could help us understand more nuances and dimensions of the film's discourses about process, information, decision-making, terrorism, etc.

And let's also not just say the film paints these characters as "pure," let's not suggest it offers only one perspective, let's not reduce it to being an "America! F--k yeah!" movie. Maybe my own experiences are just so in the minority, but I left Zero Dark Thirty feeling so uneasy, so embroiled in my thoughts about what it presents and how I can reconcile that against the last ten years of my own life and my own political ideologies. Of course I'm not advocating for us to see ZDT as fact, or even as docudrama. If you're worried that spectators will see this as documentary images of CIA and Navy SEAL activity and take it as "absolutely true," then shouldn't we be taking Lincoln to task as well? Isn't that movie also creating an "absent record" of how Lincoln looked, sounded, and behaved (if I hear one more person say Daniel Day-Lewis "completely captures Lincoln's voice" my head might explode)?

Maybe it's time we stop launching political attacks on these films and start reconciling how we intermingle History and historical films in the popular imagination. That is to say, shouldn't we be asking whether we're accepting films as an acceptable method of historiography? Shouldn't we be seeing these films as interpretative? Zero Dark Thirty constructs a space that's designed to function alongside our own experience of its history. It isn't an act of recorded history, but an act of exploring a representation of history, and we should further weigh the ramifications of that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This was a fantastic piece! I can't think of an article I've read on the film that's looked at it with this level of nuance and intelligence. Ditto on Jason Clarke deserving more praise. Thanks for providing an analysis worthy of this brilliant movie!