Saturday, January 26, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)

Torturing a point

(Warning: plot discussed in close detail)

For the record I think Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is a terrifically made film. It's perhaps not quite entertainment (as Mr. Ebert points out), and as real-life depictions go perhaps not as entertaining as say Ben Affleck's Argo. But I like it all the more for that; there's a stubborn integrity to Bigelow's pacing of the film and staging of the attack itself that reflects something of her overall concept of the picture. 

Mind you, I do think Affleck has a concept: to tell in as widely appealing a fashion as possible the improbably true story of a rescue mission in Iran. I don't on the other hand think mass appeal was Bigelow's priority; Chastain's performance as Maya--the CIA agent who pursues Bin Laden (or UBL, as he's often nicknamed)--gives us a clue as to the nature of those priorities. 

We never see Maya watching the video footage of 9/11 or listen to the audio recordings, as Bigelow makes us do in the film's opening; that she saw and was shaken by the event the film treats as a given. When we do first see her, she's taken to one of the CIA's 'Black Sites' to interrogate a detainee, and you can see from her gestures and body language that she clearly doesn't want to be there, that she's forcing herself to watch the procedure; when asked for help, however, she gives the approved textbook reply: you can help yourself by talking. Her distaste is palpable, but the telling detail that stays with you is that she'll do her job, despite her lack of enthusiasm. 

For the next two hours she shows us two faces: the efficient, hyperintelligent CIA officer collating and interpreting data, the lonely young woman who mostly keeps to herself and confines her trust to a few co-workers (mainly Jennifer Ehle's Jessica, an unsung but finely crafted supporting performance). On one hand she's all business; on the other--well, you don't get much else. Jessica is Maya's 'confidante' only in that she relaxes before her friend, but doesn't really open up to her. Even to her closest friends--acquaintances, really--she keeps herself a cipher.

To paraphrase something the filmmakers have said in defense of the film: just because a character comes across as a cipher doesn't mean she is a cipher. Chastain's Maya is arguably the tensest, most compact, most tightly wrapped character I've seen in recent movies, a coiled spring that doesn't release its energy--not even when she's barking at her superior officer--for the majority of its hundred and fifty minute running time. She's closed off; she doesn't give us an ounce of warmth, nor ask for an ounce of understanding--when she's forcefully explaining why this or that isn't a good idea it's just the exact amount of force needed to sell her case. She gives you the impression of someone constantly holding back, holding back--mainly (you sense) because she's saving herself for her objective, for someone far off, not easily seen. If there's a passion in this film it's Maya's for UBL--and she never even lays her eyes on him till the very end.

Maya does confront a superior officer and it's her showiest moment, the one time when she yells at the top of her voice. But her response partly arises out of frustration: the man is standing in the way when she can smell that the objective is near. When Maya doesn't get what she wants, she gives loud information (it's also the film's least persuasive moment--as if the desperate threats of an underling could actually affect a superior's decision positively).

This I submit is the movie: not the attack itself, but the hundred and thirty or so minutes leading up to the attack. It has been pointed out how seemingly pointless and meandering the first half hour was; I thought the pointlessness was also the shape of the manhunt at the time--a lot of flailing about, a lot of groping in the dark (metaphorically and literally). Bigelow wanted to give us the flavor of the manhunt, a sense of how helpless they were at first, even to the point of almost losing us or boring us at various points in the film

The attack itself? Plenty of action setpieces this year--Affleck's nicely done airport chase in Argo; Tarantino's fairly competent bloodbaths in Django Unchained (inspired, I suspect, by the less bloody if wittier climactic massacre in Johnnie To's Exiled, among others); Whedon's exhilarating alien-army beat-down in The Avengers; Nolan's glummer, more drawn-out confrontation in The Dark Knight Rises; Paul Anderson's (W.S., not Thomas) balletic hijinks in Resident Evil: Retribution. Bigelow leaves them all in the dust--her considerable filmmaking chops make her one of the most visually intense filmmakers working in mainstream Hollywood today.  

Coming in I'd been given the mistaken impression that the assault would be seen entirely through the ghastly green of night vision goggles; actually it's a mix of POV footage and free-floating (like an anxiety) shots that follow the soldiers into the compound and up the stairs. The lighting is pitched just so: dark enough that you feel you need to squint to be sure of what you're seeing, bright enough that you really don't. The action only seems confusing; actually it comes together readily in your head, like a Steuben crystal shattering in reverse.

And tension--Bigelow stages the assault as conducted, with mostly the soldiers' voices and the occasional gunfire interrupting the eerie silence. Everything happens in real time, with little emphasis, ellipsis, even fuss; you have this sense of events held barely under control, careening just this side of the track.

Talking about Zero Dark Thirty strictly as an action thriller pretty much ignores the eight hundred pound anthropoid in the tent, namely the controversy about its depiction of torture. Reactions range from Glen Greenwald's indignant harumph that the filmmakers aren't being run out of town (the article having been written before he's seen the film ((to be fair, he's written more since)) to David Edelstein's more nuanced position that as "a moral statement, Zero Dark Thirty is borderline fascistic. As a piece of cinema, it’s phenomenally gripping—an unholy masterwork."

Somewhere in between it must be mentioned, if only because he's such a respected critic, is Slavoj Zizek's. Zizek is a brilliant thinker and wonderful writer but at times inconsistent, and I'd say this essay was written on one of his off days--instead of penetrating insight we have strident insistence, instead of inspired originality we have intoned principles about what one should or should not depict on film. Comparing torture to rape, he writes: "Our guts tell us that there is something terribly wrong here; I would like to live in a society where rape is simply considered unacceptable, so that anyone who argues for it appears an eccentric idiot, not in a society where one has to argue against it. The same goes for torture: a sign of ethical progress is the fact that torture is 'dogmatically' rejected as repulsive, without any need for argument."

The quotes suggest his view is more nuanced than the word 'dogma' suggests, but he doesn't elaborate; he mostly insists "there is only one answer." He doesn't help his cause by ignoring the possibility that perhaps the film does possess an anti-torture stance, and proceed from there; no, this is a problem that he insists must be nipped from the bud--no ifs, buts, or maybes.

Taking a cue from Zizek and his response, I can't help but notice that the film's loudest critics begin from the impression that the film depicts torture as a harsh but necessary step in finding UBL--which I find problematic; if you watch the film the issue doesn't seem all that simple.

The film's first interrogation scene, for example, involve a man named Ammar (Reda Kaleb). CIA officer Dan (Jason Clarke) subjects the man to hunger, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, close confinement, waterboarding; the man weakens, but doesn't crack. Later, Dan and Maya devise a trick that convinces Ammar that he did crack, and the man unwittingly gives up the name Abu Ahmed--UBL's trusted courier. The name is tricked not tortured out of the man.

 Edelstein doesn't buy that excuse. He clarifies that "it is only through waterboarding, sleep deprivation, etc. (as well as a bit of trickery made possible by torture), that the CIA operatives learn of Bin Laden’s courier’s existence." The parenthetical phrase doesn't quite do justice to the scene's focal point--waterboarding doesn't get us the courier's name, subterfuge plus a plate of hummus does. Well, to be fair, a combination of torture and subterfuge does (an assertion Senator Diane Feinstein denies). If the film's critics have a case, it's strongest here.  

Then there's the film's second interrogation scene where Maya--this time lead interrogator--questions Abu Faraj (Yoav Levi), Al Qaeda's third most important officer, about Abu Ahmed. Faraj doesn't crack; Maya's next lead involving Abu Ahmed has to come much later, through other, non-torturous means. If the film is meant to follow Maya's growth into full-blown espionage warrior, with the skills and determination to take down UBL, one might say she has just learned the lesson that torture doesn't always get results.

Arguably the strongest, most explicit statement made against torture in the film is given during Maya's confrontation with her boss, Pakistan bureau chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler). He tells her that 1) the information she got from the tortured detainees is suspect, and 2) No one is interested in Bin Laden anymore.

Bigelow's critics would probably be less critical if Bradley's words were given greater weight--if, say, Bradley clarified why the information is suspect (people will say anything to stop the pain), or why Bin Laden is less relevant (Al Qaeda has grown beyond the man into a multifranchise, semiautonomous entity). Maybe it would be too much to expect the film to stop and ponder America's loss of moral stature for indulging in torture--but such a scene would have helped. 

Every day Maya writes a number on his office window--a number representing the days they have waited for their superiors' decision to move on UBL's presumed hiding place (a compound in the suburbs of Abbottabad, Pakistan); every day Bradley could have (but doesn't) point out that the delay is partly caused by doubts about the evidence she collected, partly through torture. Again, the point could have been made more explicit--but Bigelow was apparently avoiding explicit political points while not stinting on the pain and violence

Then the ending: the soldiers come back from the attack to a large tent and lay out their booty of computer disks, manila file folders, and a single body bag. They're in a subdued mood, as if not quite believing what they've just accomplished; one of them whoops in triumph, and the sound almost sounds sacrilegious. Maya walks past them, past the goodies being spilled out of sacks, past the smell of testosterone and triumph, towards the single body bag lying on a gurney in one end.

It's possible to read the tear on Maya's cheek two ways: a Rolling Stone writer dismisses it with a comparison to the ending of The Princess Bride ("I've been in the revenge business for so long...I don't know what to do with the rest of my life"); it's also possible to read it--and yes, I'm aware I can be accused by Rolling Stone of 'reading it in'--as an unworded rebuke of her goals, of the whole 'revenge business,' a perhaps more muted version of Kurtz's reaction in Conrad's Heart of Darkness ("The horror! The horror!"). She looks at what she's done, at all the years and effort expended, at all the faces who suffered before her, and she feels regret--involuntary, as tears often are; she feels regret despite herself. The End--no inspiring music, no waving flag or hint that the world has been bettered or improved by the killing of a great evil; just a black screen, and credits.

By way of comparison, if I find the business far less palatable in Tarantino's Django Unchained it's because of this: considering all the suffering slaves have endured, the only response Tarantino can think up for them is revenge? Kicking redneck ass--that it? If--if--we can read Maya's tears to signify the second meaning, then Bigelow's film at least acknowledges the possibility that there's more to life than this revenge business.

 Interesting to compare Maya to Sgt. James in Bigelow's previous The Hurt Locker. Both take an unholy interest in their careers; both are profoundly empty without their careers to define them. I liked The Hurt Locker a lot (better than her ex-husband's work that same year), but as I note in my own article Sgt. James simply doesn't make sense. If Maya's a more persuasive character than James that's because Bigelow makes her even more of a cipher than our EOD expert (She says she has no friends or boyfriend but does she at least have family? A one-night stand she can call up occasionally?), and we can read all kinds of useful things into her tabula rasa character.

There are two reviews I find especially useful in thinking about the film--or at least, two reviews with especially interesting views: Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's thoughtful meditation on the film as a thoughtful meditation on representation--how an image or digital recording is often taken as the object or person himself, and how the film really depicts a self-perpetuating process that gathers data by a variety of means, both low and high tech. "Bin Laden..." Ignatiy writes, "is the last real-world foe, and he is defeated by being turned into abstracted data." I don't know about 'last,' but that 'abstracted data' bit has a chillingly prophetic air. 

David Phelps' take not only digs deeper into Vishnevetsky's ideas, but also manages to implicitly criticize the article. He asserts that while Bigelow's film talks a lot about process and shows much of the surface workings, it doesn't give us a real understanding the way Roberto Rossellini or Otto Preminger does. If anything Bigelow presents the story as being less about the CIA and more about Maya, about her need to get the job done; the director focuses on the human-sized drama, with humans doing the heavy lifting; government organizations mostly get in the way--are good only for the goodies they bring (stealthy attack helicopters, SEAL specialists) to the table. It's an old-fashioned action-movie trope, one Bigelow has used in many of her films (The Hurt Locker being the first title to come to mind). Phelps also points out that for all the intensity and realism of the torture sequences (a realism some have questioned (though their own motives have also been questioned)) it ultimately soft-pedals the horror: Jean Luc Godard's depiction in Le Petit Soldat is easily worse. 

So--the torture question? Which I trust I've tortured past point and patience with links and consideration of as many views as I can collect? I'm unsurprisingly somewhere in the middle: I think the film isn't as clueless as to believe torture is crucial to the hunt, nor do I think Bigelow endorses it as such; on the other hand I do think she was caught flatfooted by the controversy, that it wasn't her intention to have the interrogation scenes be the target of so much scrutiny, that she was and is unaware of the larger implications her film represents. If she had to do it all again, she would probably make her stance more explicit the way she does in her article, allowing us to focus on the rest of the film as was intended. 

Perhaps Phelp's most potent questions ask Zero Dark Thirty's real relevance to the larger issues: was Bin Laden such an important target (the ghost of Bradley's assertions, resurrected)? Should we be content with this shallow depiction of war, without casting a more critical eye on the processes and institutions behind (Bigelow being no Rossellini or Preminger--come to think of it, who is?)? Doesn't the film's real story go something like this: that enhanced interrogations involving physical and psychological (though no less concrete) torture have given way to the high-tech collection of Big Data, and the idea that this development is the answer to all our problems is possibly the most falsely comforting and hence most dangerous idea of all? 


Afterword: Let's be clear--I'm not warning people away from Big Data towards more primitive techniques (am not advocating enhanced interrogations at all!). Big Data has after all solved quite a few recent problems for quite a few people--a baseball team comes to mind, and an incumbent president. What I do think we should watch out for--and what I think Phelps warns us about--is putting complete faith on Big Data, the way say the Bush Administration put much of its faith at one point on enhanced interrogation. We should handle any new science with caution and not a little skepticism, keeping in mind that any relatively new science--and scientists themselves due to the nature of their profession are mindful of this--will have flaws and blind spots. Fools rush know how it goes.

(reedited 1.28.13)


Quentin Tarantado said...

Doesn't your closing argument tie in with 'M' (Judi Dench)'s testimony at the end of Skyfall? That in the age of Big Data and analysis, we need anachronisms like Bond and, I guess, 'enhanced interrogation' more than ever?

Noel Vera said...

I guess Dench and I don't agree.

I mean Big Data is a powerful tool, but we should trust it only a little more than we should trust enhanced interrogations--in other words, very little. Enhanced interrogations we should trust not at all--the cost in terms of reliability and moral stature is just too high.

Noel Vera said...

The idea of a big quick fix--which is what Big Data offers, and which I think Zero Dark DOES endorse--is an illusion, and a dangerous one to believe in.

Noel Vera said...

Maybe I should clarify in the post itself...