Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: “The Greatest Manhunt in History” or: We’ve taken a journalistic approach to this film, but if you criticise it, we’ll claim the art defence or: “TWO THUMBS UP!”

SEAL raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Zero Dark Thirty – Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc © 2012 All Rights Reserved
It’s always fascinating to look at the review quotes that adorn movie posters and DVD covers. They invariably attempt to convey how brilliant the film is in as few words as possible. In fact, looking at most of my own film covers, it is difficult to find a recent title without at least one ubiquitous quote. 

The exception is catalogue titles. The cover of the excellent Blu-Ray of Apocalypse Now features nothing particularly marketable, bar the iconic typography of the film’s title, Francis Ford Coppola’s name and the silhouette of the film’s patrol boat with Marlon Brando’s Kurtz superimposed underneath. Heart of darkness indeed. 
A very spicy meatball © 2013
The difference between a new release and a classic catalogue title is that a new release is an exercise in marketing. Both my imported Region A copy of Zero Dark Thirty and local edition of The Hurt Locker make clear their cinematic preeminence: the title of the film sits in the centre of the cover, adorned by large text informing the viewer of the films’ Oscars success, along with a generic quote from one of the usual critical suspects. Two thumbs up.

In this way, Zero Dark Thirty is much like any other film. It could be the next Apocalypse Now, or it could be as prosaic as (heaven forbid) Green Zone. We, the audience, knew quite a bit about the film long before its release. We knew Kathryn Bigelow was working on a film about the unsuccessful search for Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of the invasion of Afghanistan, but that after the raid on bin Laden’s compound, production was halted and the script rewritten to cover his death.

Bin Laden consumed the global public imagination unlike any other foe since the end of the Cold War. The political and social repercussions of September 11 spread around the world like a contagion. Government intelligence agencies that had been as relevant as the steam engine in the post-Cold War unipolar world found themselves cashed-up overnight, given carte blanche to defend the homeland from “terror”. And if you were unfortunate enough to have the name Mohammad, speak a language other than English and look anything other than “white”, airports and public places became as inviting as a blow to the head with a cricket bat.

Closer to the film’s release date, the marketing machine kicked into overdrive with reports concerning the film’s depictions of torture causing controversy among the public and US lawmakers. Questions were raised about the filmmakers’ access to potentially classified material. Was the film pro-torture? Was it an anti-Bush diatribe by liberal Hollywood? Who knew? That didn’t stop plenty of opinions from being formed by those who had and those who had not seen the film. 

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House. Official White House photograph by Pete Souza.
Peace Terror in Our Time

This was, and remains to a certain extent, our time. A time when our elected leaders traded the language of diplomacy and statecraft for that of crusades and of absolutism; when state-sponsored savagery in the service of the “greater good” became de jure. And here came a film about finding Osama bin Laden, the phantom shadow that had consumed the West for a decade. Could this film be the defining film of our time? Could this film perhaps help us, in some peripheral way, address the obsessions of the past ten years? Could it answer why nail clippers in handbags suddenly became as lethal on aircraft as a stick of dynamite or a hand gun? 

Heh. As the kids say, LOL.

Zero Dark Thirty is just another film that happens to feature a scene of torture and, in a non-sequitor fashion, ends in a thrillingly executed re-enactment of the...erm...execution of Osama bin Laden. For all the pre-release bluster, the film says nothing about torture at all, aside from depicting it as being possibly useful in finding Osama bin Laden. Maybe. Or as the filmmakers say, it occurred and it’s shown and it’s up to the audience to decide. They report, you decide. 

Anyone who had at least one critical faculty available to them over the past decade would be well aware of the practices of the United States (and its allies) in the Middle East. If you are after some cathartic realisation about the horrors of the first decade of the 21st century, then Zero Dark Thirty is not the film for you. Watch Rory Kennedy’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib instead, or any season of 24. Jack Bauer’s questionable interrogation techniques performed on poor unfortunates in service of stopping the latest assassination/nuclear/chemical/gas/technological attack speaks volumes more about torture in this crazy decade than Zero Dark Thirty does.

But perhaps I am building up a straw man, only to subject him to waterboarding and ritual humiliation. By the filmmakers’ own admissions, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t intended to be a film encompassing the entirety of the ‘War on Terror’. It’s about what Kathryn Bigelow described as “an American triumph”; the killing one former Saudi citizen who had evaded the most technological advanced army in the world for almost ten years. Unfortunately, for a film dealing with one of the most significant moments of the 21st century, Zero Dark Thirty is almost entirely devoid of context, aside from the film’s exploitative opening featuring phone calls made from the World Trade Centre to emergency services on the morning of September 11, 2001. 

Us and Them

For a film that, by its creators’ own admission, is about being as real as possible, Zero Dark Thirty paints an oversimplified view of the world. In one corner, we have our alleged protagonist, Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her CIA buddies who are an unstoppable force for good in the frontiers of the world. They work in the secure, civilised citadel of the US embassy in Pakistan while barbarians, the local Pakistanis, swarm at the gate (quite literally in one scene). The film is entirely uncritical in its depiction of Maya and the CIA as the “good” guys. The Middle Eastern characters in this story are given one dimension to work in and that is as dark-skinned evil-doers. Team America: World Police was far less jingoistic. At least Team America can claim the satire defence.

A scene from The Hurt Locker Team America: World Police – Paramount Pictures © 2004 All Rights Reserved 
There is no respite from Zero Dark Thirty’s one-dimensional world-view. The world depicted outside of the secured US bases and embassies is one of constant danger and perpetual terrorist attacks. Any time there is a lull in the dialogue, the audience is conditioned to expect an explosion to rip through a wall or an armed assailant to burst out of a car, all guns blazing. At least The Hurt Locker, which looks more and more like Bigelow's masterpiece by comparison, attempts to portray a more complex world outside the razor wire of the US bases. Hell, some of the locals aren't even terrorists and there's a kid who sells pirated DVDs. Obviously Iraq isn't applying for WTO membership any time soon. 

But I digress. 

Nominated for five Oscars. Won one.

This is not to say there aren’t some wonderfully cinematic moments in Zero Dark Thirty. In fact, the film is full of them. Shaky, faux-handheld camerawork notwithstanding, it is impeccably well shot and tautly edited. Technically speaking, Zero Dark Thirty is a sight to behold. No questionable Hollywood backlots here, only location shooting in Jordan and India. No George Lucas-inspired blue screen work, just large-scale practical sets. Much like The Hurt Locker, there is a raw energy to the look of Zero Dark Thirty that can only be attributed to both Kathryn Bigelow's and Mark Boal’s commitment to their films. 

Ultimately, the first two hours of the film play out as a mere lead-up to the all-important raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. The last thirty minutes of the film demonstrate the best of what digital filmmaking has to offer. Shot in very low light, these scenes feature an immediacy and realism that would have been difficult achieve using Kodak or Fuji 35mm emulsions. Where 16mm worked exceedingly well for the harsh sunlight of The Hurt Locker's Iraq, the Arri Alexa is a better fit for Zero Dark Thirty. The low-light capabilities of the Arri is on show for all to see and works effectively for this film, with the final reel (or memory card?) feeling like a thrilling hybrid between cinema, 24-hour television news and a first person shooter. A most appropriate mix for our time.

Zero Dumb Thirty

But technical achievements are not enough to make up for the rest of this film. If, as Bigelow has claimed, she took an almost “journalistic approach to film”, then Zero Dark Thirty is an abject failure. While it accurately paints torture as part of CIA operating procedure, it depicts those who question "enhanced interrogation techniques" (news footage of President Obama in one scene) as bleeding hearts. The CIA may be a secretive lot, but I doubt they are such a monolithic entity that they all accept torture as necessary. The entire film is one uncritical love letter to the the CIA and the “brave work” of the US military and intelligence forces who “paid the ultimate price...for the defense of this nation”. 

Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) knows how to treat a journalist – Warner Brothers © 1999 All Rights Reserved 
But then again, perhaps Zero Dark Thirty's "journalistic" approach is entirely appropriate to the War on Terror. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, in particular, popularised the practice of "embedding" journalists with allied soldiers, all but eliminating non-Pentagon approved reporters from from war zones. Although the jury is still out on whether embedded journalism resulted in one-sided journalism, it certainly limited what journalists could report on, especially in comparison to, say, the Vietnam War. For the Pentagon, information warfare is just another battle front necessary to win the war.

Thirty Minutes Past Midnight

If you’re after something as vital as critical discourse from your Oscar-winning directors, then you will find none here. Films don’t always have to “say something”. In fact, the best films that speak to the audience do so with a subtle whisper. Zero Dark Thirty pretends to be analytical and sophisticated, but turns out to be neither. It is little more than an another exercise in American Exceptionalism that has more in common with Michael Bay on Valium than, say, Francis Ford Coppola. I would have thought the American public got their share of whooping “U-S-A! U-S-A!” on Pennsylvania Avenue after bin Laden’s death, but apparently they need to fictionalise it and project it up on the big screen. 

The killing of this Saudi shadow who had taunted the United States through shonky video and audio tapes for almost ten years was, according to Bigelow, “an American triumph...and there is no basis to suggest that our film will represent this enormous victory otherwise”. 


1 comment:

  1. The sweeping, 577-page report says that while brutality has occurred in every American war, there never before had been “the kind of considered and detailed discussions that occurred after 9/11 directly involving a president and his top advisers on the wisdom, propriety and legality of inflicting pain and torment on some detainees in our custody.”