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Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Depiction does not automatically equal endorsement. 

It’s an easy rule to remember, yet I’ve noticed lately that several critics and commentators seem to have trouble grasping it. First, that intellectually-bankrupt video on YouTube attempted to expose Hollywood's “hypocrisy” by juxtaposing footage of various actors (Jeremy Renner, Jamie Foxx, John Hamm) in a post-Sandy Hook gun control PSA with clips from movies (including The Town, a gritty crime drama that treats gun violence as a decidedly Bad Thing, and Casa de mi Padre, an obvious parody of over-the-top Hollywood bloodshed) in which they've wielded firearms–as though a character’s fictional crimes somehow invalidate the performer’s desire to prevent real-life slaughter.

And then there’s the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s latest cinematic effort. The film’s harshest (and loudest) detractors accuse it of taking a pro-torture stance, simply because it contains multiple scenes of “enhanced interrogation” (in fact, one of the first images we see is of a bruised, battered, and emaciated detainee strung up by his wrists). Personally, I would argue in the exact opposite direction–that Zero Dark Thirty is staunchly, unambiguously anti-torture. I would cite as evidence Jessica Chastain’s performance, which clearly conveys her character’s discomfort with the bloody process: during and after each and every brutal session, she squeezes her eyes shut, pinches the bridge of her nose, clamps a hand over her mouth–body language that paints a portrait of a woman on the verge of physical and emotional collapse. I would also point out that few (if any) instances of onscreen torture produce a viable lead (indeed, the film was originally about the failed manhunt for bin Laden; current events rewrote the plot).

These wildly divergent interpretations suggest that the director’s stance on the ethics of torture is actually relatively neutral. In fact, her detached, naturalistic, documentary-like shooting style rarely comments on the morality of her characters’ actions, either to condone or condemn (even the climactic raid on bin Laden’s compound is fairly low key). Therefore, in the world of the film, torture is neither entirely good nor entirely bad; it simply is, an undeniable and inescapable piece of the narrative of America’s War on Terror–an ugly truth.

Legendary cineaste Francois Truffaut once wrote that, regardless of the artist’s intent, there is no such thing as an “anti-war” film, because the visual immediacy of the medium inherently glorifies the subject matter–in other words, content will always supersede context. He may have been right, but I don’t believe it’s because of the nature of the art form; rather, it’s the audience that makes it so.

[Originally written January 10, 2013.]

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