Thursday, January 17, 2013

Polemics and Action: Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain  in Zero Dark Thirty (Photo: Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures)

Kathryn Bigelow, the director of the “get Bin Laden” thriller Zero Dark Thirty, is – like Walter Hill and John Woo in their prime, and John Sturges and Don Siegel before them – a master action  film-maker. Period. It’s a highly specialized category, and one that far fewer directors fit into than you might expect, given the degree to which action films dominate the marketplace. Plenty of hacks, and any number of good directors trying to score a hit that might allow them to work on the films they care about, know how to stage gunfights and chases and explosions, or can at least cede control of a production to the stunt coordinators and pyrotechnics experts for a few days. Bigelow is one of those rare people who can stage figures in a composition and set them in motion in such a way that the release of kinetic energy is both exciting and aesthetically satisfying. It’s because of directors like Bigelow that some critics are able to get away with claiming that physical action caught on film is the true essence of “pure cinema.” 

Bigelow can generate that kind of excitement even when her actors are confined to tight quarters, as in the tense, intelligent K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), about  a nuclear accident aboard a Soviet military submarine. Although K-19 was a box office disaster, it may have marked a significant turning point in Bigelow’s career.  Throughout the ‘90s, she turned out a string of ever gaudier failures (Blue Steel, Point BreakStrange Days) that showed a lot of confidence in her ambitious, high-decibel vision and not a lot of interest in narrative believability. Making a movie that was set among men who lived by a military code, with a story that had at least one foot in the real world, did wonders for her ability to focus. Her next film, The Hurt Locker, starring Jeremy Renner as a bomb-disposal expert in Iraq, was even better, a wartime character study that combined Hemingway’s romantic attitude about grace under pressure with the kind of gonzo vision of the absurdity of war that came out of the most original fiction and journalism about the Vietnam war.

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal on the set of Zero Dark Thirty
The Hurt Locker, which is easily the best movie made about the Iraq war, is also one of the very few Iraq-war movies without a political ax to grind. With Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow and her screenwriter, Mark Boal, are making a movie about events that have been central to America’s political culture, and its culture in general, for more than a decade, but they’ve said that they intended to make a movie without politics, and they probably mean it. But if they had less faith in the “purity” of action cinema, they might have asked themselves if that could really be done. Before Zero Dark Thirty was even finished, it was being talked about warily by conservatives whose loathing for President Obama is so intense that they can’t help but see it as a partisan affront to treat the killing of Osama bin Laden as something to celebrate, because to do so might amount to saying that something good happened on Obama’s watch. 

Then, when word got out that the movie portrays torture as an essential weapon in the War on Terror, the debate shifted, and liberals who hadn’t seen the movie either began writing impassioned editorials denouncing it. You could call that proof that the movie would be embraced and attacked by people of every conceivable political stripe no matter what it said, and you’d be right. That’s not Bigelow’s fault. But now that the actual movie is finally in wide release, people will probably continue to either see it as confirmation of what they want to believe or, if they prefer to feel besieged by Hollywood propagandists, as a forty-million-dollar sneak attack on their most cherished beliefs, and that is Bigelow’s fault.  Despite its gritty, pseudo-documentary surface, with dates and chapter headings flashing on the screen, Zero Dark Thirty is deeply movie-ish in its thinking, and the material is shaped not to reveal the shape of history, or to argue political points either, but simply to play on the viewer’s feelings. Because of that, and because of what it’s about, it has the texture and weight of a Rorschach blot, and it operates in the exact same way.

Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke
After a brief opening segment intended to remind us, as if we needed reminding, what happened on September 11, 2011 – we hear the voice of a terrified woman trapped in the burning tower saying to a phone operator, “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” – the movie cuts to the U. S. embassy in Pakistan in 2003, where Maya (Jessica Chastain), a freshman intelligence officer, is starting work under Dan (Jason Clarke), who brings her along to a CIA black site where he interrogates a detainee hanging from the ceiling by his arms, then forces the man to strip in front of the visiting American woman and straps him into a dog collar. The focus in these scenes is on Chastain’s Maya. The actress is in her mid-thirties, but she reads as much younger. And, surprisingly, Maya the career spook makes no attempt to conceal how mortified she is to see the detainee being debased. But when Dan leaves the two of them alone, and the detainee begs that she help him, she stiffens her spine and says, “You can help yourself by answering truthfully.”

Throughout the film, Maya comes across as someone who’s in over her head. (And when, after a tragedy, she hunkers on the floor of her office with a bottle of booze, she looks less like a grown woman trying to cope with emotional devastation than a little girl who’s gotten into the schnapps while her parents are out.) But this probably isn’t a case of miscasting. In such art-house favorites as The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, Chastain’s speciality has been projecting a youthful maternal glow that a lot of people find spiritual, and here, she sanctifies torture. Maya isn’t a sadistic monster; she’s not one of those grinning cretins posing for pictures of their victims at Abu Ghraib. 

Maya is meant to be the one intelligence agent so dedicated and single-minded that she never loses sight of the importance of capturing Bin Laden, even when those more short-sighted, such as her station chief in Islamabed (Kyle Chandler) thinks, and makes a pretty good argument, that she’s “chasing a ghost” who’s of less vital importance than the people who aren’t hunkered down for the rest of their lives but are planning terrorist acts right now. But in a cast full of terrific actors, and also Mark Duplass, playing intelligence agents and military personnel, she’s the one who never seems to quite fit in. This feels like a deliberate choice, intended to make her easier for the civilians in the audience to relate to. Maya has finer feelings that she has to suppress in order to go along with the dirty things that have to be done, in the name of homeland security. If you may have information she needs, and you have to be tortured for it, it’s important to know that the torture hurts her more than it hurts you.

Chris Pratt, centre, and Joel Edgerton in Zero dark Thirty
What does it mean to make a “non-political” movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden, in which torture is shown to have been essential to the success of that mission? When Obama’s National Security Advisor (Stephen Dillane) tells Maya’s boss (Mark Strong) in Washington that he can’t recommend going ahead with a raid on a house until he’s been given solid proof that Bin Laden is inside, the CIA man replies that there’s no way his richly funded agency can possibly provide solid proof of anything, because they’re not allowed to torture people anymore. A friend of mine who worked in Afghanistan for the U. S. government during part of the period covered in the movie told me that she thought that line in particular, and the movie in general, is a devastating attack on the mindset of the intelligence agencies in the post-9/11 era. She thought the point of the movie is that, because the CIA was allowed to become morally and intellectually lax enough to participate in, and indulge in, torture, it took them ten years to perform a simple task that competent intelligence work, coordinated with efficient military planning, should have been able to get done much earlier. But there’s no question that many people will take the CIA man at his word. 

In Texas, where I saw the movie, there were knowing snickers in the audience when Dillane tells the CIA people, who are champing at the bit to dispatch soldiers to the house, that President Obama is a thoughtful, level-headed man who needs more evidence. Probably, in another theater in another city, there’ll be snickers when Dillane says that the CIA made a better case for Saddam’s cache of WMDs. Bigelow may not have knowingly rigged the movie to potentially be all things to all people, but she and Boal had to choose which details and incidents to include, and they made their decisions based on the kind of movie they wanted to make – one that extols the virtues of “professionalism” and stubborn dedication to a dream. 

When one of the soldiers (Chris Pratt) asks his team leader (Joel Edgerton) why he believes Bib Laden is inside that house, the team leader points at Maya and says, “Her confidence.” “That’s the kind of concrete data point I’m looking for,” says Pratt, in the time-tested manner of manly action-movie men who express their deepest feelings while pretending to be joking. In the end, the movie seems to suggest that everyone should have just listened to Maya from the start, because of the depths of her conviction. There’s no reason that Bigelow couldn’t have made the same movie about how everyone should have listened to the people who believed that Saddam Hussein planned 9/11 and was planning a big follow-up with his vast stores of WMDs, except that such a movie would be laughed off the screen. 

Jennifer Ehle in Zero Dark Thirty
As a piece of filmmaking, Zero Dark Thirty is gripping and effective, and Bigelow consistently springs surprises that make the audience jump. But there is one lead-footed sequence that, in its incompetence, exposes the limits of her approach to the material and the attitudes underlying that approach. It comes when she restages the 2009 suicide attack at Camp Chapman in Afghanistan. Jennifer Ehle plays Maya’s friend and colleague, who arranges for the bomber to visit the base, thinking he’s prepared to turn informant. Ehle starts out speaking in an accent of indeterminant origin, but around the middle of the movie, she develops a Southern drawl, and then, as her character behaves more and more like a ninny, baking a cake to present to the man who’ll blow her up, the drawl gets thicker and thicker. Even if you don’t know the outcome of that meeting, it’s painfully obvious what’s going to happen when Ehle instructs the guards at the base to let the bomber through the front gates without searching him, and then becomes ever more giddy, like a kid on Christmas Eve. The movie presents her death as a sad thing, but despite Ehle’s considerable charm and audience rapport, it’s hard to feel anything for her, the way the scene is staged. She makes a stupid mistake that the rigid Maya would never make, and gets herself and several other people killed for it. That may not be the reaction Bigelow intended, but it’s an inevitable consequence of the way she prioritizes sticking to the rules and getting the job done. Ehle’s not a perfect professional, only a human being.

It says something about how much action-movie thinking has seeped into our politics that the meat of the anti-torture argument in recent years has come down to whether it’s effective or not. There might be an argument over whether there are things that civilized people shouldn’t stoop to, and shouldn’t tolerate having their governments stoop to on their behalf, whether or not they work, but Bigelow isn’t the person to consider that argument. Much of the noise surrounding Zero Dark Thirty has concerned whether Bigelow and Boal exaggerate the actual importance of torture to the success of the effort to find Bin Laden. The people who took us into Iraq embraced any “evidence” that Saddam had WMDs, and vetoed any evidence that he didn’t, because they already knew what they wanted to believe. Whatever Bigelow and Boal want to believe, I suspect that they chose to favor the people who told them that torture was essential to this story because it fitted the movie they wanted to make: torture may or may not be effective, it may or may not be the only way intelligence can be gathered, but it’s definitely exciting and “cinematic,” and in a context like Zero Dark Thirty, it gives you the feeling that you’re getting the ugly grown-up truth, which you can then either denounce or embrace. On its own terms, Zero Dark Thirty is an impressive piece of filmmaking, but the very inadequacy of those terms, in relation to its subject and ambition, reveals a lot about the limits of being a master action filmmaker.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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