For probably dubious reasons, I find myself compelled to rehearse a feeble defense of Zero Dark Thirty (read: a defense of Kathryn Bigelow, director of Point Break, who for some deeply annoying reason also directed Zero Dark Thirty, a film about the CIA hunting down and killing Usama Bin Laden). Both before and in the wake of the film’s release, critics have mounted a series of assaults on the film—mostly about the politics of representations of torture– which, I would like to begin by saying, are almost entirely legitimate and worth saying.
The sum total of my defense of a film that is in many ways indefensible goes something like this: Zero Dark Thirty is DULL, a not insignificant matter in Kathryn Bigelow’s action film world-view. In the event that this statement does not just put all matters to rest, I will elaborate.
The primary critiques of the film relate in various ways to the film’s scenes of torture (rather than the deeply questionable cultural politics of making this film at all). But before I get to the specifics of such arguments there is one important thing to be said about Zero Dark Thirty’s insistent presentation of torture: until its release, the only financially-successful films to thematize torture have been horror films representing torture as fantasy, and often posing Americans as unwitting victims (particularly the Hostel series). Films attempting to address the U.S. relationship to torture were few and far between, and nobody went to see them (Rendition, anyone?). So whatever else you may say about Zero Dark Thirty, it is a film that says, loudly and unambiguously: the United States tortured people. Americans tortured people. A lot of them. Recently.
But that is really not enough in and of itself to legitimize or defend the film, and the specifics of the representation of torture demand some attention, for instance the critique, best represented by David Bromwich’s recent Huffington Post piece, that the film presents torture as not-that-big-a-deal. The charge that the film depicts torture as routine, committed by “essentially good people: technicians, working at a grim but unavoidable job,” does not seem to me to be a particularly compelling indictment. “Nowhere do we catch a whiff of sadism or racism or, with the exception of Maya, strong feeling of any kind.” But isn’t it important to demonstrate that the United States employed torture exactly this way, routinely? That the film presents torture as matter-of-fact, and not requiring any particularly unsavory agents (from whom we might easily distinguish ourselves) to administer it, would seem to me to be a useful representation, highlighting the degree to which the global policing project of the war on terror incorporated torture such that it was precisely a “grim but unavoidable job” for many people, and probably not that big a leap from the systematic racist violence of American law enforcement and military action. In other words, to these critics I would say that the unremarkability of the torture scenes may be exactly the point.
Of course, the charge that the film represents torture as effective (with all evidence to the contrary), is more significant, and a critique that I have no ability or wish to defend against. The film is so clearly invested in its real-historical status, that to take creative liberty and depict torture as an important step in the investigation when in fact information garnered through torture had nothing at all to do with locating Usama Bin Laden, is much more of an implicit valorization of torture than even some of the most loyal Point Break fans could defend. And thus I am left with a wailing “Wherefore, Kathryn Bigelow?” and shameless, nostalgic, auteurist speculation.
As I watched the film, for instance, I marveled at the sheer amount of self-restraint it must have taken the director of Point Break and Strange Days to allow a team of gun-wielding badasses to breach Bin Laden’s compound with explosives and not augment it with a rhythmically pensive score to build the tension (rather the scene’s soundtrack is defined by the screams and cries of children who watch their parents murdered before their eyes by American soldiers); to not linger fetishistically over the body of Bin Laden, but instead to focus on the characters that did linger fetishistically, mouths dangling open, snapping pictures; and to end the film quietly, with ambiguous tears from our Bin Laden-obsessed protagonist that bring the film extremely close to suggesting that this was a bitterly empty moment for the film’s main character (and for America) rather than a moment of meaningful closure and revenge. Given the type of thrill-defining filmmaker we know Bigelow can be, the blah-ness and lack of punctuation that characterize Zero Dark Thirty make it difficult not to feel that there is a serious, if not very successful attempt to suggest that this history is to be treated with, at the very least, ambivalence.
Chastain’s tears, on top of her proplike narrative status, have driven critics to declare the film both a poor excuse for feminism and a symptom of the way feminism has been complicit in the war on terror. And yet there is comedy for me in Bigelow being accused of even vulgar feminism, which I would argue is intimately connected to the facile gravitas with which she presented the yawn-ey hunt for UBL: for Bigelow, the best way to make something less sexy is to put a woman in it (Angela Bassett’s biceps in Strange Days notwithstanding).
It may or may not be ironic that what made Bigelow such an expert action film director is that she knew better than anyone how to cut through the nonsense of the compulsory heterosexual romance and truly celebrate the bread and butter of a good action film: cartoonish masculine homoerotics and absurdly pleasurable narrative excess. The surest way to achieve the action film sublime in the boy-crazy work of Kathryn Bigelow (as almost primally evidenced by Point Break) is to get rid of the irritating and perfunctory female love interest and let the men swoon over each other. It is not surprising that the non-dimensional Maya of Zero Dark Thirty who obsessively pursues UBL (sidenote: why are onscreen female CIA agents always obsessive these days? It’s like “stalking” has been newly redefined as some sort of mystical lady counterterrorism superpower) is only given the semblance of a personality when uttering lines that were obviously intended for Keanu Reeves: “I’m the motherfucker that found this place.” The film has absolutely no idea what to do with her. Bigelow’s films, if nothing else, had until now proven exceptionally consistent in their insistence on the thrill of adrenaline, for both their characters and spectators. That her latest venture rejects stylized excitement to a remarkable degree, making everything from torture to a Navy Seal operation merely effective and quotidian police work (removing all masculine delight from it to the degree that it is filtered through the perspective of a woman, of all things, who is just confused to be there) is, I suspect, Bigelow’s earnest and perhaps even ethically-minded attempt to remove fun from cinematic depictions of violence.
The result: a (blandly) nationalist, (non-extremist) reactionary, (ostensibly) feminist film about “the crucial role women play in protecting America,” in which torture and murder is decidedly not fun: to do, to watch, or to critique. A giant “meh.” Thus my defense of sorts: to be boring and take a clumsy and misguided stab at feminism may be the only way Bigelow knows to be less offensive. The 157 minutes of “why am I here?” is likely the best marker of Bigelow’s effort toward treating torture with a gravity that did not weigh down the 1990s, leaving law enforcement officials of that bygone era the freedom to surf and parachute nearly simultaneously, at least in Kathryn Bigelow’s world. Perhaps you will forgive me if I suggest that at least, and maybe at best, she knows that the forces of the “war on terror” did not and should not fly so high. It may be sad that my strongest defense of Zero Dark Thirty is that I napped through part of it, but I think it’s a point worth making.
–Catherine Zimmer: I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt.