Quick Review of Zero Dark Thirty

Having seen Zero Dark Thirty: 1) I disagree with some of my favorite, thoughtful reviewers about the torture scenes. Each one of the victims of torture do have information, unlike the reality of what did happen. And the main CIA character (Maya) winces, but then learns to face it without a mask on. Then there is the crucial scene where a CIA manager is told to get more information and he responds, “How am I supposed to do that without the detainee program?” Where is the ambiguity (as if concerning such things one must admit an “ambiguous” double side)? Where are the FBI agents who refused to take part because such torture was against the law? Jane Meyer at the New Yorker has discussed this and she’s right. This all plays as perhaps as a means–sure a horrible means–to a greater end; never is it discussed in moral terms or any terms beyond what is necessary to prevent the various bombings depicted in the film. The main character winces at first, then moves on for many years of non-wincing torture scenes. To argue for something greater in this films means one has never watched police procedurals where the good detective beats the hell out of the crook to get the location of a hostage or the stash of drugs. Finally, I keep reading these torture scenes are a small part of the movie. When in fact, they are providing the leads for information for at least half the movie. This is not some argument ignoring the film’s grammar or unable to figure out how to read a film on its own terms. 2) I should note on a more pedestrian note: it’s not a very involving movie. Woman tortures people. They get information. Bosses suck and block progress in getting Bin Laden. Then bosses relent a little. CIA agent happy. They get Bin Laden in very darkly filmed scenes. Film ends with her wondering what to do next. I guess there’s always Yemen.

If you think I’m wrong on the latter count, just take this glowing review by Dana Stevens in Slate. Here are her stirring descriptions of movie she found a “vital, disturbing and necessary film.” Let me pull together some quotes, which summarize the film and my comments in brackets:

Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent, has just showed up for her first day of work at a “black site” in Pakistan. Maya’s first day on the job is spent observing while a fellow agent, the burly, bearded, disconcertingly laid-back Dan (Jason Clarke), uses enhanced interrogation techniques to subdue a recalcitrant prisoner named Ammar (Reda Kateb). We’re talking very enhanced, including waterboarding, extreme stress positions, and, in a later scene, sexual humiliation and confinement in a small box. Watching these horrific acts unfold, Maya tenses up and glances away, expressing—we think—our own disquiet at Dan’s methods. But when the detainee, left alone with her for a moment, begs her for help, her reply is icy: “You can help yourself by being truthful.” [So much for the ambiguity we’re told about in all other reviews.] For the next two hours and 40 minutes (believe me, they fly by [they don’t]), we rarely leave Maya’s side for a minute, yet we never really come to understand her as a character. [It’s a well-known dictum that great movies give us nothing to understand about characters.] …This is a movie whose drama takes place largely in boardrooms and in front of file cabinets [this, too, is well known to be thrilling], as the monomaniacal Maya struggles to convince her intransigent higher-ups (including Kyle Chandler as her dismissive boss, Mark Strong as his dismissive boss, and James Gandolfini as the gruffly avuncular head of the CIA) of the importance of remaining focused on bin Laden. …That virtuosic raid sequence, much of it filmed in the sickly greenish light of the soldiers’ night-vision goggles, is the movie’s cinematic crown jewel, a nerve-fraying masterpiece of real-time suspense—but it’s also completely detached from the main narrative of the film. [Disjointedness often found to build momentum in such movies.] The Navy Seals who participate in the operation show up so late and are sketched so hastily [!], we never even learn their names.

Faceless characters arguing in front filing cabinets and then a disjointed, dimly lit firefight by characters we never get to know. Sounds like a good summary to me. For this reason, one is led, like Greenwald, to wonder what is supposed to be so thrilling and “vital” about this movie. Stevens continues:

Wrestling with the question of how torture is handled in this film, I couldn’t stop flashing back to Jack Nicholson’s indelible diatribe at the end of the otherwise forgettable 1992 court-martial drama A Few Good Men: “You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.” …By thrusting the sometimes unsavory practices of the CIA agents who hunted down bin Laden under our noses, is Bigelow attempting to align herself with the belligerent bluster of Nicholson’s embattled Col. Jessup? Zero Dark Thirty, as single-minded and emotionally remote as its heroine, plays its cards so close to its vest that it’s impossible to tell…

And that precisely is the point, both as dreary “art” and its politics: we must throw up our hands; “it’s just impossible to tell.” And that where the moral compass of our movies has come in twenty years in a way that Stevens doesn’t bother to discern in her example: Jessup’s moment in the film is not a triumph of that kind of thinking, but its reversal, since he faces arrest; he is told to come off down that wall, whatever Stevens thinks is deep in our hearts at our parties or whatever. His crime? Ordering the beating–that is the torture that lead to the death–of someone under his control at Guantanamo Bay. That’s the forgotten lesson of an “otherwise forgettable” movie.