When a work of art includes a problematic subject or theme, there are always going to some segment of the audience that believes that confronting that subject is the same as condoning it. It is NEVER X to Y about Z, after all. The use of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, for instance, just glorifies torture, especially since – as the argument goes – the film posits that the use of torture leads directly to our discovery of bin Laden’s whereabouts.
There are also a frankly alarming number of viewers who process Zero Dark Thirty as a staunchly pro-American jingoist propaganda piece, as indicated by the shouts and cheers that I encountered when I saw it this past weekend. As the screen faded to black and ‘DIRECTED BY KATHRYN BIGELOW’ appeared on the screen, a man shouted “WHOOOO! AMERICA!”
That was not my takeaway from watching the film. Neither did I glean that the film sends a pro-torture message. Zero Dark Thirty is, perhaps, every bit the cipher that its protagonist, Maya (Jessica Chastain) is, and as a consequence, we map what we want to – what we bring to it – over its contours. It’s perhaps as easy to see scenes of CIA torturer Dan (Jason Clarke) feeding a compliant prisoner and Dan feeding his monkeys in quick succession and think ‘the terrorists are subhuman’ if that’s the lens you’re already looking through. It’s equally valid to view Dan as the monster as he happily shares his ice cream cone with his pets. The film, like its heroine, is driven by hard data – it is lean on judgments up until its final minutes.
What that data tells us about the war on terror is that our methods are flawed. The film does show the audience that torture can be effective, yes, but the intel gained from it turns out to be virtually nothing compared to what the agency already had on file, while it also explicitly states that similar methods are responsible for false intelligence. An inability to truly understand the conflict leads to incidents like the bombing at Camp Chapman (which is a real event – even down to the birthday cake that everyone is so critical of Jennifer Ehle for baking). Bigelow walks a tightrope neatly between calling the US out on its incompetence and respecting the tenacity and intelligence of the agents on the ground.
What really elevates Zero Dark Thirty as a film is the brief time in which it reflects on the aftermath of the raid, capturing the Pyrrhic quality of the victory – did we expect that the enemy would simply stop, that it would be a decisive victory for democracy? Instead, the wheel keeps turning and the attack only opens up new avenues of investigation, new leads to hunt down. Maya’s life has been taken over by the work, but now that the work is over, she doesn’t get closure, just emptiness. A more hackneyed film would have had a supporting player ask her if she thought it was worth it, or had Chastain herself ask the question to one of her friends’ graves.
That a film so unsentimental and matter-of-factly down the middle of its subject matter can churn the engine of political debate so healthily says as much about the state of the union today as those people cheering at the movie’s end – we see the America we want to see.