13 January 2013

On Zero Dark Thirty

At The Guardian you can find this essay/interview with Kathryn Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty a controversial film depicting the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The controversy revolves around the role of torture in that "hunt." Here are some parts of the essay I found interesting:
"Her assiduously neutral position on the politics of the film brings to mind, ironically, a politician."

"In [The Hurt Locker]the wider controversies of the war in Iraq are sidelined in favour of the experiences of the soldiers: the beads of sweat, the dust, the fly dancing on an eyelash as it looks, unblinkingly, down the barrel of a gun. These small details accrete, over the course of the film, into something like a moral force. Bigelow justifiably won the 2010 Oscar for best director, the first woman to win in that category.

Zero Dark Thirty takes "a similar perspective", she says, with its focus on the individuals, a group of CIA agents tasked with finding Bin Laden and played with brilliant understatement by Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle and Jason Clarke. 'It's a very human piece and it's a story of determination,' Bigelow says. 'We can all, as human beings, identify with believing in something – believing in something so strongly that there is nothing else in your life.'"

"Bigelow's absolute conviction in her own rightness is a habit of mind she has had since childhood."

"Bigelow's diffidence is something she acknowledges with wryness and regret."

"When she gives any thought to the vastness of the story, and to the radioactive sensitivity of so many of its elements, she reassures herself that, "as a film-maker, it's a responsibility to engage with the time I live in. You're kind of creating an imagistic version of living history." And with all the risks that entails."
The point? Engaging with the time one lives is important and admirable. But doing so by narrowing one's focus so relentlessly as to miss the contextual differences from one situation to the next is, well myopic in the pejorative sense.  And to do all that with supreme, unquestioning self-confidence is, frankly, astounding. This is a political story, after all. Political at the core. And Bigelow seems oblivious to that.

Here is how The Guardian depicts the film:
"Not even its harshest critics dispute that Zero Dark Thirty is a beautifully made film, with clean, sharp lines, completely gripping, and light on any extraneous material. There is almost no backstory for the characters, just the grinding sense of mission that propels people working in extraordinary circumstances. There is nothing glorifying about the torture scenes, either, which illustrate both the hideous reality behind the euphemistic language and the fact that you can't trust information coming out of them: when asked for details of an imminent attack, the detainee – beaten, waterboarded, dragged on a leash and finally shut in a box – mumbles in terror and bewilderment every day of the week. (Later, when not under duress, he gives up a key name, which critics of the film say sets up a false causality: there is no conclusive evidence that torture led to this particular disclosure.)"
So the nub of the issue in much of the critical commentary seems to revolve around whether Zero Dark Thirty does or does not establish or gesture at or . . . whatever, the efficacy of torture in eliciting 'actionable' information in the hunt for bin Laden. You'd have to see the film to decide.

Regardless or how one comes down on that matter, there are other questions at stake. I have read that Bigelow sometimes defends the film as fiction; but in this interview she places supreme confidence in the factual interviews - the research - conducted by screenwriter Marl Boal. Which is it? An interesting question that. But not my primary concern. One makes political judgements in context and with an eye to consequences of more or less wide ranging sorts. That is the point of this essay by Karen Greenberg. What is at stake here is not whether Bigelow or Boal personally endorse torture or defend the Bush war crimes apparatus. Of course they don't. It is not a matter of whether depicting torture is wrongheaded or gratuitous. That depends. It is about how the details a film depicts are contextualized. And, it seems, Bigelow has adopted a radically personalized, largely decontextualized focus. Hence the uproar - and Bigelow's seemingly uncomprehending reaction to it. Then again, I've not (yet) seen the film.
N.B.: An afterthought - It occurs to me that Bigelow/Boal are in something of a bind. If, as they seem to claim, they are depicting practices in the Bush War on Terror in a way that is not didactic, that allows audiences to make up their own minds, draw their own conclusions, they can hardly complain that audiences are, in fact, interpreting the film as giving torture or torturers a pass.

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