ZERO DARK THIRTY Thoughts

Here are some of my thoughts after seeing Zero Dark Thirty yesterday on the big screen

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Bigelow’s LATimes Op-Ed

“As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.”

Curious to make a pro-torture film then if you are really a pacifist. She could’ve easily made an anti-torture film, it would not have won her many accolades though.

“Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement.”

This is NOT exactly true in this case as the film’s central tenet was that the detainee program and it’s use of torture DID provide the intelligence that was used 7 years later to find bin laden. It’s not like the film’s plot is open-ended. It’s casualty-driven, every single scene builds upon and leads to the next one. The movie becomes a tautology just like Jason Clarke’s character says when he makes his Cheney-esque ‘unknown unknowns’ comment.

“On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices.”

I could believe this statement is she made ANY ATTEMPT at all to show the blowback of torture on America. That is not easy to do since it’s complex and riddled with externalities we, as a country, are not ready to admit or accept. She makes a stand that she’s showing what GOOD the torture did (i.e. catch bin laden) but she makes ZERO effort to show any negatives. This is propaganda, pure and simple. Calling Leni Refienstahl…

Read her op-ed and judge for yourself what she means.

Rugged Individuals = American Exceptionalism at it’s BEST!

Maya = Carrie from hit Showtime show HOMELAND.

How is it that both of these redhead, OCD CIA agents were able to defy their superiors for so long? What jobs let you get away with that for so LONG? No job I ever had put up with the amount of insubordination that both perform on a daily basis. Ever boss I worked for would NOT allow them to be verbally dressed down in front of subordinates either.

What exactly did Maya do in the seven years between getting the tortured intel and finally linking it to bin laden’s courier?

We are a Crime Scene Country Now

Why is American pop culture – movies and television especially – obsessed with crime-scene and CIA-type investigation shows? Are we trying to make sense of the national malaise by reverse-engineering crime shows? ZDT treads the sticky propaganda line of absolving the country of its sins for torture. Plain and simple. It lead – how many years and how many trillions of dollars later – to bin Laden’s death. A death which violated all kinds of international laws, took justice into our own hands (Judge Dredd-style) and then to have him buried at sea? Does that make America any better than the terrorists we are fighting against? Put yourself into the shoes of the children in bin laden’s compound who saw their parents and other adults murdered in cold blood right in front of them. Are 3-4 murders OK while 3,000 is not? Is murder justified on the scale?

Probability

There was a scene late in the movie Nate Silver would love. James Gandolfini as the CIA Director asks for probabilities as to whether or not bin laden is in the compound. Maya says 100%, a sign of strength since she’s so sure! The rest, even Clarke’s character put it around 60%  Bayes would not approve of Maya and she knows it which is why she revises her number to 95% sure.

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Individualism over Collective Action

Final shot of Maya like the final shot of Redford in The Candidate. Now what? Indeed America, now what? You spent trillions to get revenge on bin laden and al Qaeda – now what do we have to show for it? A wrecked economy and a government that is spiraling out of control. Let’s celebrate the ONE person who figured out where bin laden was hidden all of these years. Bigelow can say what she wants but this film celebrates Maya’s character over everything else in the whole film.

What about the Pakistan government’s role on all of this? This is a perplexing foreign olicy question that NO ONE wants to ever discuss.

Why not?

Conclusion

I tweeted early that Zero Dark Thirty is the same as Triumph of the Will – brilliant visual filmmaking hiding it’s slick nationalistic propaganda. I stand by that statement. ZDT is an engaging, fast-paced film even at its 2.5 hour running time. I think people NEED to see this film in the hopes that it can restart a dialogue about the War on Terror, torture and American foreign policy above everything else. That is a conversation we as a country seem awfully reluctant to have in peaceful times much less troubled times like today.

Reading through a lot of the posts and criticisms of the film makes me want to reiterate this – we can’t treat Zero Dark Thirty just like it’s a regular ol’ film. It is more than that as its subject alone has yet to have been dramatized for the big screen so like it or not this film might just be the definitve account for people uninterested in reading detailed articles and books about the raid & killing.

Can we judge this film for what it’s not showing or are we philistines for that as Glenn Kenny notes in his piece on the film? I would strongly disagree with Glenn on this point due to the fact I can’t just treat this as a “film” since it clearly aspires to be more than that as evidence in it’s opening title card “Based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” Sure, movies pull off that trick all of the time but they don’t due it for a “story” that has gripped the nation for almost a decade, glorifies torture, promotes the standard foreign policy line and obscures attempts at any rational counter-argument.

I don’t feel compelled to getting into arguing other film critics or people’s hypothesis on the film, that always feels a bit like tilting at windmills. I feel some of the issues I have outline are important and should be seeds for further investigations into the many questions this film opens up. That being said, I found Ignatiy Vishnvetsky’s piece at MUBI to be very informative.

P.S. – If you have not seen Triumph of the Will do it. It’s a fascinating  film for many of the same reasons as ZDT.

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