Monday, December 10, 2012

How Zero Dark Thirty's unflinching objectivity opens the film up to simplistic accusations of ideological partisanship.

Spoiler warning, I suppose...

There is going to be a lot of debate over the next few months about just where on the political divide Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty happens to sit.  I argued in my review that it merely looks at what happened and what was done without explicitly endorsing or condemning it.  But in our somewhat simplistic media age, impartiality can be seen as being politically partial, depending on what your film happens to contain.  I've written about this before, back when The Green Zone came out (read it HERE).  Just because a film is about evil corporations who kill people doesn't mean it's intended as liberal propaganda and just because a pregnant woman chooses to not have an abortion doesn't mean it's an anti-choice screed.  I'd argue part of the point of Zero Dark Thirty is that non-fiction rarely falls into specific political or ideological dogmas.  At a glance, the film shows brutal torture ordered by Republican President Bush eliciting information that allowed for Democratic President Obama to order a mass killing by US troops in a sovereign country with only a token belief that the people about to be gunned down were the intended targets.  The film dares to neither explicitly condemn the torture nor remotely take joy in the climactic execution, presenting both events as morally reprehensible even if perhaps necessary to the proverbial 'greater good'.  Even if you argue that the film states that torture may well have worked (although the film certainly acknowledges that the carrot works better than the stick) and that we certainly 'got' Bin Laden, it also argues that we damn well should take a moment to inquire at what cost our 'victory' was achieved.

Real life doesn't follow ideological lines.  Regardless of where you stand on torture (nay) or the execution of Bin Laden (eh...), Bigelow's film is apolitical in the best sense of the word.  I liked The Hurt Locker quite a bit when it came out in 2009, but I was forever annoyed at how everyone championed its 'apolitical' nature, as if not taking sides in a fictional story set in a real-world environment was automatically a good thing.  For all my fuss over Spielberg's choice to hold off releasing Lincoln until just after the election (obviously the right choice in hindsight), the film doesn't sit on the political sidelines, but rather tells a progressively-minded story which condemns those on the wrong side of history while gently ribbing those on the right side who threatened progress via ideological purity.  Zero Dark Thirty is apolitical in a different and almost courageous sense, presenting incident and imagery destined to be dissected for political intentions but refusing to offer commentary or any explicit declarations.  Like all or at least most of Kathryn Bigelow's prior pictures, Zero Dark Thirty presents all violence as inherently abhorrent and a moral failure regardless of who drew first blood.

We can choose to accept the film's case that torture was one tool of many used in bringing down Bin Laden while still rejecting its use on moral and practical grounds. And we can turn away in disgust at what went down in Pakistan while still acknowledging what arguably had to be done (although how grand would it have been to catch Bin Laden alive and put him on trial in New York City?).Bigelow and Mark Boal don't pander by including characters explaining why torture doesn't always work nor does it include a squeaky-clean Seal raid sans collateral damage with overly empathetic Navy Seals.  Just as the film doesn't contain moments where Jessica Chastain 'explains' her character and/or her character arc, nor does the film offer comforting explanation of its subject matter in a way that will appeal to one political side or another.  The film is a time capsule piece, existing merely to show what occurred during a morally messy moment in history and allowing the audience to decide how they feel about it.  It treats us like adults, so I only ask in the months to follow that we discuss it like adults in turn.  The film is no more a Right-Wing screed because it doesn't condemn torture anymore than it's anti-war propaganda because the Bin Laden raid doesn't go down like a deleted scene from Act of Valor.

Zero Dark Thirty is a morally complicated film about a morally complicated time, presented with a minimum of contextual explanation or justification.  To read it purely on the simplest level in order to justify an outraged editorial does the film and the medium of adult film-making a genuine disservice.   It is not an editorial, but (as best as it can be) an ideologically objective documentation of specific events.  It is an acknowledgment that reality often falls well outside any and all respective political dogmas.  Zero Dark Thirty is one of the best films of the year partially because it is unafraid of potentially being embraced by those political factions its filmmakers may disagree with. Its only bias is to history.

Scott Mendelson      


phillylo said...

Scott, I'm a big fan of your reviews. I found your site because you were one of only a handful of reviewers that gave "Django" a fair (and fairly tempered) assessment.

i like the way you handle "Zero Dark" here. i'll say that i'm very curious to see how viewers of different age demographics handle Bigelow's narrative with regard to the moral ambiguities (or necessities) of torture. i'm a 37 year-old Gen Xer informed by the Machiavellian morality of "24" but also by a certain cynicism toward our various "wars on terror". it struck me as odd that when it came to the targeted killing of UBL, i was more than willing to suspend my usual moral qualms about the limits of American governmental authority. for me, it was an emotionally important experience to see Bin Laden's killing enacted on-screen, and if i entertained any moral reflection afterwards it was with regard to the extent of the protagonist's self-sacrifice in the venture.

the way Bigelow handled that death scene--restraining us from a full view of the body, leaving us in the aftermath with Maya's solitary moment of catharsis--really tells us that her story universe is one in which nothing is satisfying enough. we are left to grapple with the magnitude of murders, tortures, and self-sacrifices in our solitude, and without the benefit of melodrama.

Scott Mendelson said...

Thanks for the kind words. But for what it's worth, I think that 24 also got a bump rap over the years, which is actually something I'm writing about on Friday in time for Zero Dark Thirty's wide release.

Eduardo said...

Mr. Mendelson should rewatch the Hunger Games with his newly gained aspects in mind. Zero Dark Thirty earns praise for things he beforehand criticized the Hunger Games for.

Scott Mendelson said...

I bought the blu ray and will indeed eventually give The Hunger Games a second chance. I don't believe the two films are similar, as one presents rather horrifying violence and doesn't comment on it beyond its intrinsic discomforting nature while the other tones down or looks away from its violence in order to keep itself in the realm of crowd-pleasing action film.

phillylo said...

There were more than a few reviewers who were baffled by the "don't ask, don't tell" attitude toward plentiful violence in Hunger Games. the fact is that the creative staff had to decide whether to make the movie for young teens or for the mature audience; i think that the compromise they came to was a pretty tepid product. given how relatively tedious the next two books are, i'm not too optimistic about this series...


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