Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Cinema File #77: "Zero Dark Thirty" Review


Though I only got the chance to see two of the three Lincoln movies from last year, and only one of the two FDR flicks, I have now officially seen both major CIA/Foreign Policy in the Mideast/Based on a True Story Thrillers released in 2012. Argo was something like number three or four on my toplist for the year if I remember correctly. Just for the symmetry of it, I wish I could say that Zero Dark Thirty was on my worst list, but it doesn't quite make it there. That being said, I still fucking hated the crap out of this movie.




I wasn't sure what to think going into Zero Dark Thirty. The only context I had for the movie was that it was from the director of The Hurt Locker, which I liked but didn't love, and that there was some controversy over the depiction of torture. My good friend and collegue Nate Zoebl notes it as his favorite film of 2012, and even Andrew Sullivan, one of my favorite bloggers and the most strident torture opponent I know online gave it a pass on the controversy front, so I decided to go in with as few expectations as possible with my mind and heart wide open. Now, having seen it, I would really like to know what these two once trusted sources for critical analysis have been smoking, and where I can get some. Zero Dark Thirty is not a poorly made film, but it isn't a particularly well made one either, and on the subject of torture, I haven't been this offended at a piece of right wing propaganda since 2016: Obama's America.


The story of our country's prosecution of the War on Terror after 9/ll is not one of heroism, but of tragedy. It is not a story of our great victory, no matter what the last half hour of Zero Dark Thirty would suggest, but rather a story of how the terrorists succeeded in making us drop to their level out of fear and hatred. The torture regime started in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center, conveniently juxtaposed in the first few minutes of this film as if one was the natural and reasonable extension of the other, was not a necessary evil, but simply an evil, committed in all of our names, and now celebrated in a film that will no doubt be nominated for and probably win several awards for its greatness! To couch this horrifying reality in the context of a committed plucky young go-getter doing whatever she has to to do the right thing and catch the bad guy is absurd, and it would be funny if it weren't so insulting.


The best defense I've heard of this movie concerning the representation of torture is that technically, the suspect only gives the information after they stop hurting him and start treating him like a human being. First off, that's not what happens. Its not like they suddenly decide that their tactics were wrong and decide to try a method of interrogation that doesn't include torture (which in the real world accounting of these events every expert will tell you is not useful as an interrogation technique at all). What they do is determine that his humanity has been successfully stripped away from him, and his spirit and state of mind is broken enough to try tricking him instead of just beating info out of him! Using a carrot doesn't make the stick any less painful in retrospect. And its not like they stop torturing after that.


I lost count of how many times I heard our heroes lament the fact that they lost their ability to torture detainees for information after Obama gets in. And speaking of Obama, I mentioned in my Red Dawn review how his presence seemed to suggest a thinly veiled Right Wing critique of his capacity as leader, and he fairs no better here. The only time you see him is in a scene where a group of torturers who should be in prison FOR FUCKING WAR CRIMES! (ie. the protagonists we're supposed to identify with) practically scoff at his insistence in an interview that torture is not an American thing to do. Despite being the guy whose shift in policy actually led to Bin Laden's death, his only other significant impact on the story is as the unseen bringer of a new political agenda that hampers the good guys attempts to get their villain with so much pesky mealy mouthed skepticism.


Torture did not have a significant role in the intel that directly led to the identification and successful assassination of Bin Laden. We know this not only because it was specifically confirmed, but because generally the suggestion that torture would ever lead to any evidence of anything ever is a contradiction in terms. Torture is not a method of accumulating accurate information, it is a method of ripping the soul out of a person as an example to others who you wish to instill fear into. And yet, I defy you not to take the pro-torture view of things from the narrative of Zero Dark Thirty. The subtitle of this movie might as well have been Dick Cheney Was Right, and anyone who knows enough to know just how wrong he actually was should be as angry as I am.


I want to say that at least it may be an expertly constructed piece of propaganda, maybe even throwing in a comparison to Birth of a Nation in how technical execution does not justify a morally reprehensible message, but the fact is, I didn't even think it was really all that well done. It's not notably terrible in any way, but especially compared to Argo, which contained a lot of the same themes and a similar tone, on a production level its at best just okay. I don't want to sound like a broken record after my Hobbit and Django reviews, but its yet another example of a movie that did not need to be more than two hours, and in between the black site prison stuff and the extended raid sequence of the final act, there's a huge swath of almost unbearable middle featuring the larger investigation that is not nearly as taut or dramatic as the movie seems to think it is. And I do not for the life of me get the fawning praise over the finale. At first I thought the impact was lessened by the fact that I knew everything ultimately would go off without a hitch, but then I knew that at the end of Argo too, and that final scene had so much tension that this one lacked without any shots ever being fired.


There is certainly not enough here on a basic technical level to make up for the chasm of politically and morally disgusting tripe on display. I don't use the term propaganda lightly, and that is exactly what this movie is. It is a testament to how far we've come since 9/11, and not in the right direction, that a film like this could be made and be met with such instant and nearly unanimous praise. Obviously, the torture regime itself, the complete lack of ramifications for those responsible, and the only nominal roll back of Bush-era policies is enough to show that we lost our way long before Zero Dark Thirty, but the success of this film with the supposedly liberal bastion of Hollywood suggests to me that we're a long way from finding our way back.

Or, put more simply, fuck this movie. Fuck it long, and fuck it hard.

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