Monday, March 4, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

(Kathryn Bigelow, USA, 2012)

I've got to hand to Kathryn Bigelow - in ZD30, she has made one of the most perfect cinematic Rorschach tests in memory.  One's reaction to the film will pretty effectively indicate how one feels about a slew of issues: torture, war, cinema, politics.  If you like it, but tend to the left politically (or are at least anti-torture), you will say that is shows torture as degrading both to the victims and the perpetrators.  You will say that it depicts the War on Terror as being a colossal waste, an Ahab-like quest with no resolution or redemption.  You'll back this up by mentioning, among other things, the last shot, where Maya cries.  If you like the film but lean to the right, you will see it as a hard-nosed, scrupulously accurate chronicle of the quest to kill the world's Most Dangerous Man, just like the ads say.  On the other side of the fence are those who think of the film as rank propaganda, or that, while well-intentioned, it irresponsibly trucks in distortions of the historical record.

But what's most interesting about the film is its ability to support any and all of these interpretations.  I'm not trying to play some kind of "both sides got it wrong" card, or couch my own views about the film.  I think it does truck in historical distortions, and that Bigelow and Boal were caught up, knowingly or not, in the kind of perspective-warping inside access that has come to plague so many mainstream journalists.   But that case has been made by plenty of others, to varying degrees of accuracy and persuasiveness.   What fascinates me is the fundamental blankness of ZD30 - the way it serves so readily as a canvas on which to project one's own ideas.

At its most basic and important level, ZD30 is a procedural.  Bigelow's main priority is to maintain the story's suspense, and she does this rather well, although not nearly as well as some have contended.  There are plenty of superior procedurals, big and small screen, and much of the praise heaped on the film seems to be overcompensation for the condemnation that the film has received elsewhere.   Too often, Bigelow seems to be using bin Laden's boogyman status as a narrative crutch; rather than generating tension from within the story, she depicts the events with a plodding obviousness, as if it were self-evident that this urgency were shared by everyone. This is made worse by the tunnel vision of the narrative, which is set exclusively within the confines of the CIA and their operational partners.  The mission to kill bin Laden is never questioned, only followed with varying degrees of eagerness.  What anyone personally thinks or feels is irrelevant if it doesn't fall directly in line with the main objective.

Defenders of the film might counter that this is precisely the point; that the assumption that "UBL" is the ultimate kill-with-maximum-prejudice enemy is precisely what Bigelow is seeking to undermine or explode.  But this case doesn't hold up.  If it's true that Bigelow has made a covert critique of the characters and their worldview, she's done an especially poor job of it.  And this is, again, because so much is merely presented, shown without inflection or perspective.  Sure, there is the persistently somber mood, well-maintained but unimaginative and tiresome.  The characters don't have worldviews; they don't have any evidence of inner life at all.  And it's not because computers or modern warfare or whatever have stunted them, it's because the filmmakers don't effectively depict it.  Bigelow and Boal have fashioned a tremendously un-dynamic film - the only thing keeping asses in the seats is the sterile, pre-fabricated suspense over the momentousness of the Events Depicted.  They don't tell a story, they telegraph the importance of a series of actions.  You could commend them for doing this well, but to me, it only underlines the failure of the film as Art.

The question of whether the film serves as propaganda is an important one, but secondary, in my view, to considerations of its artistic merit.  If it were better art, it would make more of a vexing concern.  But we're not talking about Triumph of the Will.  We're talking about a high-gloss commercial product that seethes with a sense of its own importance, but that fails to effectively engage with the imagination; it's Navy Seals: The Movie, but done with a simulacrum of aesthetic sophistication.  Plenty of the film's partisans have argued that ZD30 is too manifestly serious, and too lacking in sensationalism or cheap, jingoistic cheer-leading to be the kind of effective propaganda that others claim it is.  Here, I agree and disagree.  Yes, it's not a simple-minded, chest-thumping fable like Air Force One or Red Dawn.  But that's precisely what makes it effective, especially to educated, middle-class people.  It's earnest aesthetics and heavy reliance on Ambiguity make it perfect fodder for the intellectual class.  It has all the trappings of a serious film, without actually being serious about anything other than some vague, psuedo-journalistic desire to present things as they were.  Lacking ideas of their own, or the conviction to follow them, the filmmakers scrupulously relinquish imaginative prerogative to the false god of objectivity.   It's not surprising that so many found that objectivity to be tantalizing, considering the political stakes that were up for grabs.  But that wouldn't be the first time that cant went masquerading as criticism. 

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