Zero Dark Thirty

February 1, 2013

Coming from a director whose filmography and talent suggest she is both switched on and aware, it’s hard to believe Kathryn Bigelow would claim, “the film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” (Kathryn Bigelow, The New York Times, December 17 2012) Her hope, one assumes, is to hide her gentle conservatism deep within the spectacle of quality filmmaking craft. But Bigelow wears her patriotism on her sleeve and in so doing can’t help but reveal her brand of just morality. Whilst this is absolutely her prerogative the trouble with it is the casualties are viewers and ethics. Manipulated by carefully constructed and well executed craft, viewers are implicated in post-9/11 moral hysteria. Whilst technically Zero Dark Thirty is a “good” film, it is not free of judgement and worse still, attempts to hide its agenda behind an unethical brand of gentle conservatism.

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That most people feel uneasy watching Zero Dark Thirty goes some way towards confirming Bigelow’s claim that she is presenting events as they (for the most part) occurred. It could be argued too that her presentation is successful in its ability to make the viewer feel uncomfortable, potentially questioning their responses to the methods used to locate bin Laden. But even if this were true, it assumes hunting down another human with the intent to kill is an acceptable final outcome.

Jessica Chastain plays Maya, the highly intelligent, headstrong CIA operative determined to track down Osama bin Laden. Despite her strong will and hard-line, she flinches a little during an early torture scene in the film to signal her as the character for audience alignment. Later, after initial hostility towards both male and female colleagues to prove her work ethic above her humanity, Maya begins to soften and to allow working friendships to develop. This negates accusation against her character as being void of all humanity. The conflicting character developments then attempt to create power and empathy simultaneously but prove too much for Chastain who often comes across as soft where she ought to be sympathetic.

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Framed now as a woman with great power,  intelligent with a dash of empathy, Maya appeals to the viewer as moral compass. But she has no ethics, her decisions and behaviours are based on personal moral feelings, “A lot of my friends have died trying to do this – I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”, and as such compromise the integrity of the viewers who are implicit in her political/personal/moral position.

In Washington, the many suited men advise their probable certainty of Maya’s intel being accurate, refusing to commit to their position, explaining, “We don’t deal in certainty, we deal in probability.” Maya assures the men and in so doing the audience that she is absolutely sure, “One hundred percent.” Bigelow justifies the invasion that follows. Sure, what follows is some of the best technically orchestrated filmmaking I’ve seen onscreen in years and as narrative thriller plays out with incredible tension, but preying on people’s sympathy for Western innocents killed during US and UK terrorist attacks, is a low card to draw to allow moral hysteria into the narrative where ethics ought to be present. Never once does the film allow an ethical position and never are the audience privileged to see the face of the Other.

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Recently, the critical backlash against her earlier comments have forced Bigelow into honesty as her comments here reveal:

“On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices.

Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.”

– Extract, Kathryn Bigelow, Los Angeles Times online, January 15 2013. Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
Zero Dark Thirty is released in Australian cinemas Thursday January 31 2013.

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