Saturday, February 23, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: The Morality of Amorality

Best Picture Roundup: Silver Linings Playbook | Argo | Les Mis | Life of Pi | Beasts of the Southern Wild | Lincoln | Django Unchained | Zero Dark Thirty | Amour

For ZDT I asked Brad Kramer if he wanted to give his thoughts, and we agreed to do a back-and-forth exchange on the movie.

So, Zero Dark Thirty. I was very excited for this, being a big fan of director Kathryn Bigelow's last introspective war movie, The Hurt Locker, and having finally seen it I was not disappointed. What most struck me, in the movie's immediate aftermath, was the way it denied the viewer the kind of closure and catharsis you might expect from a movie about the successful killing of America's #1 enemy. It's interesting to contrast ZDT with last year's other CIA thriller, Argo, where I left the theater happy and satisfied, as the movie intended. With ZDT, I felt exactly like Jessica Chastain's Maya looked: Well, we did what? The movie asks viewers to confront the question of what has really changed, and possibly whether the whole endeavor was worth it, which about sums up the current state of whatever the War on Terror is these days.

Not pictured: easy answers

A few points:

1) This was tied for the best film I saw this year (with Beasts Of The Southern Wild, though the two films could not be more diametrically opposed artistically---and shut-up Casey).

2) This was a much, much better film than Argo (which I thought was terrific).

3) This was a much better film than The Hurt Locker.

4) This film is simultaneously the best political action thriller I've seen and the most thoroughly deconstructed political action thriller.

5) Chastain's performance is stunning (like so many of her recent performances), and she is a seriously badass hero/protagonist.

6) Whatever the film says or feels or implies about torture, it is manifestly not a film from which the viewer gets any visceral or emotional satisfaction from torture. Despite being about the most prominent and nationally truimphalized revenge killing in recent history, no part of this feels like either a Mel Gibson angry-guy revenge-porn flick nor a Tarantino reveling in the redemptive power of stylized violence.

7) In a similar vein, despite knowing and anticipating the film's outcome (the killing of America's #1 Enemy), the audience gets no real emotional satisfaction from bin Laden's death. The final 20 minutes felt like at any moment they could easily devolve into a Michael Bay joint, but remained well above the fray, resulting in perhaps the most gripping filmmaking I've seen since Greengrass's United 93.

8) Progressive critics of the film as a torture apologia should be mindful of what the film's conservative defenders are conceding, and careful about what they (the progressives) themselves concede. We are no longer engaged in an Orwellian semantic debate about whether or not we tortured people, whether or not X or Y constitutes torture. All the back and forth in the arguments now seems premised on the agreement that we did, in fact, torture people. That common ground favors critics, since we (and I very much count myself among the torture program's most unwavering critics) no longer have to spend energy making the case that torture occurred. But we run the risk of making a concession in return (and doing so quite unnecessarily): progressive critics of the film as pro-torture propaganda are focusing their outrage on the claim that it portrays torture as effective, as having been a useful tool in the hunt for bin Laden. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn't (and I would strongly argue that the film is at best ambiguous on this question). But to make a morally outraged argument against the efficacy of torture is to make a morally bankrupt concession. The worst thing for our national soul is for us to argue about torture primarily in terms of What Can Torture Get Us. We give up all the moral high ground when we argue that torture is ineffective, because torture should be wrong even if it IS effective.

9) The film's narrative and aesthetic restraint (see #s 6-7) combines with its political restraint---its refusal to devolve into moral evaluations of its own content---to elevate it to the status of true art. That it refuses to get sucked into the politics of its moment is one of its greatest artistic strengths.

Not Pictured: Zero Dark Thirty's rampant triumphant jingoism
If I had to rank the best movies I'd probably say I liked Argo more, but Zero Dark Thirty was more challenging, certainly less conventional, and probably better overall. Ask me today which I'd rather watch again and I'd say Argo, but ZDT has made me think a lot more. Fwiw, my favorite movie of the year is Lincoln because I'm a sucker for grand historical dramas, and you can have Beast of the Southern Wild to yourself, thank you very much.

RE: the torture question, I'm glad you brought that up the way you did, and I couldn't have phrased it any better. The efficacy of torture is largely irrelevant to the moral case against it, and ZDT deliberately avoids stepping into that territory. One scene that struck me occurred midway through the film when several CIA agents are sitting around a table discussing the information they need from a prisoner and how to obtain it. In the background on TV is a real-life CNN interview from (I believe, then-candidate) Barack Obama, and a lull in the agents' conversation corresponds with Obama proclaiming his staunch opposition to torture. The agents remain silent for a moment...and then resume their conversation as if nothing happened. To me that symbolizes the film's perspective: This is what we were doing and the ethics of it is not a question we're interested in discussing. Even later, when the film makes it clear that torture is less politically acceptable under Obama, the characters treat it as an administrative challenge, not a moral one. The impetus is on the audience to ask the questions. Could Kathryn Bigelow have made ZDT a powerful anti-torture polemic? Sure. She might also have made it a 300-style glorification of violence. I think the fact that she made neither is supposed to make us uncomfortable, and supposed to make us think. Critics who see the movie as unabashedly pro-torture implicitly deny the audience's ability to think critically about it.

Finally, in regards to ZDT as an action-thriller, I loved the straight-up spycraft: The electronic tracking of Bin Laden's courier, the bribing of a wealthy Kuwaiti for a phone number, the many, many dead-ends Maya encountered; it all felt refreshingly authentic (not that I would know what being a spy is like, but I suspect it's more ZDT than Skyfall). At the same time, it didn't shy away from the political side of the equation. I thoroughly enjoyed the scene where the CIA director asks the agents to discuss how certain they are that Bin Laden is actually in the compound under surveillance. Most of them hedge, leaving Maya to stand alone in her complete, possibly mistaken, confidence. I'm sure there are clever grad-school types writing papers about the epistemology of Intelligence in Zero Dark Thirty, but mostly I loved Maya's conviction in the face of significant reason for doubt. There's got to be a religious allegory there, but that's more than I want to get into now. Any final thoughts on ZDT to wrap us up?

Not Pictured: A movie you should skip

Not really, except to reiterate that I loved it, most of all for cinematic reasons, and to say that I think the film's progressive critics are mostly being very intellectually lazy.

Got any thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty? Loved it? Hated it? (prepare to probably be made fun of). Let us know what you think in the comments