Monday, February 11, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Leaves Plenty of Space for Viewer's Moral Judgment

Spoiler alert: The U.S. Navy SEALS murder Osama Bin Laden and several others in his Pakistani compound without mercy and with vengeful malice.
Most of the controversy swirling round the film revolves around whether the filmmaker, Kathryn Bigelow - positioned as auteur by most commentators -  endorses torture or  whether the film’s narrative raises the moral issue of torture for contemplation. There is, in my reading,  no overt moral position offered by the film on torture or even the morality of CIA procedures in general.  Many commentators have unwittingly bemoaned this absence or taken it as a tacit moral endorsement of torture - their right as viewers - but it is is overwhelmingly clear that torture and CIA investigative procedures, as morally problematic as they might be to us as viewers, are judged - are valued - in the film only in terms of their pragmatic effectiveness in what is for both viewers and participants a classic revenge narrative structure. "Do these procedures and practices work to help us catch terrorists, and in particular do they work to help us get Bin Laden so that we will be able to murder him in a bloody act of revenge?"

Representations of torture are recessed in the second half of the film, it should be noted,  not because of a moral awakening  by any given character but only because of a policy decision by a new administration. The Obama TV moment presented in the background in the context of a CIA war or situation room makes this crystal clear. Even Dan’s warning to Maya  - relatively early in the film -  about the possible repercussions of “enhanced” methods of detainee interrogations comes in the form of a political warning about saving her CIA ass, not moral reprehension.

The devastating loss of American lives on 9/11 is the initiating narrative event that rolls out a straightforward revenge structure ending in the murder of Bin Laden and several of his domestic companions.  Before the film proper begins in earnest, however, we are exposed to an introductory screen text informing us that the representations we are about to watch are based on  "firsthand accounts of actual event." There is an implicit moral distancing in this textual strategy - “I'm just showing you the way it was” - but certainly one of its other effects is to suggest that what we are about to see carries the weight of authenticity and is therefore important if not “real.” The now conventional use of handheld cameras is meant to reinforce this effect with a documentary-like style of shooting. In other words, the “realism” of the film is not an allegiance to “truth” or reality,” whatever those may be since neither is a given, but a filmic effect resulting from a well-established set of film conventions creating an illusion, a fiction, of “what really happened.” It seems appropriate to evaluate the film as such.

The film proper opens with a black screen over which we hear the dying voices of only American victims of the twin towers, a restriction thus positioning us emotionally if not ideologically as American viewers. Immediately after this audio text, we are treated to roughly forty-five minutes of extensive torture sequences, including several instances of the infamous water-boarding technique. Juxtaposing the first visual torture scene of al-Qaeda’s No. 3 leader, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, with the voices of the twin tower Americans who are about to die creates a  structural effect implying a retaliatory cause-effect relationship - “I am torturing you because of 9/11” -  and that effect is sustained throughout the entire 45 minutes of multiple scenes of torture and implied throughout the entire film.

These kind of scenes are gradually recessed as we move in the second half of the film towards interrogations without torture - but nonetheless grounded in bribes or threats - and sequences of CIA group intelligence analysis:  the so-called “hard work” some critics want to see as the reason for discovering Bin Laden.  But the dialogue reveals on several occasions that the analysis - the “hard work” - really results from information received from interrogated detainees, on screen and off, and those detainees, we know, were abused in some form or other if not overtly tortured.  "Does our treatment of detainees work? You bet."

Inter-cut with these intelligence analysis scenes is a revenge justifying history of  major terrorist attacks against westerners since 9/11, but especially against Americans, each successfully gaining more screen time and thus significance until the final, climactic suicide bombing in Afghanistan of one of Maya’s closest colleagues, Jessica, who has been betrayed  by her al-Qaeda connections. Now it’s “personal” is the implication as we move towards the final bloody revengeful act of murder in Pakistan.

But, in truth there has been little if anything personal in the film - no character development for anyone let alone Maya who has been merely the driving agent of revenge. We know little more about her by the end of the film than we do at the beginning, and the final scene of Maya in a giant U.S. army transport plane alone, isolated, and small is telling in its ambiguity.  "Where do you want to go?" asks a crew member,  his question unanswered. And what do we read on her face?  Relief? Satisfaction? Sadness? An unwinding? Anxiety now that her obsessive-compulsive revenge narrative has come to its end?  Plenty of room for the  the viewer’s meaning.

Following that final character scene is another screen text rounding out the ideological thrust of the film in its acknowledgement of the victims of 9/11 once again and all those who serve the American exceptionalist project.  Closure is provided by that framing text confirming the essence of the film as an apologia of sorts, a justification of policy, of strategy: “Revenge and all that that entails, including torture, are okay because they drove us to get Bin Laden, and we did that for you.”  Whether this is a impaired moral justification is the viewer’s decision.

In the end, it matters little what the filmmaker or commentators say about Zero Dark Thirty.  You are the site of meaning: it’s your reading of the film conditioned though it may be by your cultural, moral, and social inscription that matters. Like any text, film texts are unstable, dynamic, their meaning put in motion by your engagement with them. In a sense there is no film without you.Zero Dark Thirty is provocatively open enough - disturbing in so many ways - to allow for a variety of ways to read it, and that makes it a challenging, ideologically complex film well worth viewing - far more exciting than some of its straightforward conventional Oscar challengers.


  1. As you note, there is no explicit approval or disapproval of torture in the film. But by opening the movie with a long, brutal depiction of torture and no disclaimer that torture did not yield any signification information, other than a lot of lies and stories from prisoners, often just to get out of being tortured. By not accompanying these horrible images with the truth that torture was not working at the time - or at any time - is a moral and filmic failure of the director. What Bigelow has done is open the door to torture apologists to use the film as 'proof' that torture 'worked.' To me the film is exciting but it is a failure of conscience more than mere bad filmmaking. Taibbi has a good post on this.

  2. My point is that the film is fundamentally a fiction that can be read in a variety of ways and that a viewer brings his or her moral and political values to the film in engaging with it. The film values torture as a component of its narrative structure not in moral terms but in pragmatic terms, as I've argued, and that narrative says it works. Whether that is so outside the film is not the context I invoke in my post, though certainly one that can be brought to bear by any viewer should he or she wish to do so - my other main point. Plenty of room for your moral judgement. And I think you can see my own moral position fairly obviously from the get go. But in no way do I see the film as a filmic failure. In fact because it opens up so many questions - because it disturbs us - is exactly why it's a success regardless of one's moral position.