Thursday, December 27, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty
seen @ AMC Lincoln Center 13, New York, NY

I once wrote a short story about a superhero team in which the wife of one of their number is murdered, and they go off on the trail of the killer. (It was inspired by a superhero mini-series with a similar premise, one which I did not like and thought I could improve on.) One of their allies in the search is a former hero who tortures a man whom he believes can lead them to the killer. The former hero was a soldier before he got his powers. When his crime-fighting partner died saving lives, he retired in order to protect his partner's secret identity from exposure. He justifies his use of torture, something he had never done before, by citing loyalty to one's comrades above all else.

Many of the stories we tell, and have told, throughout human history, involve one of the oldest and most basic maxims: an eye for an eye. Someone does you wrong, you balance the scales and get them back. Most of the time, when we see or hear those stories, we don't particularly care too much how payback is achieved. After all, these are only characters in a story. It's not real. I'm certainly no different; I don't think about degrees of morality when I see Batman toss the Joker around a room in order to get him to reveal where Harvey Dent is.

Last year, I wrote about a remarkable film called Kinyarwanda, in which the central message is that forgiveness can be a reasonable alternative to perpetuating the cycle of violence. It's hard, though, because it requires you to acknowledge the basic flawed humanity in the one who did you wrong, to see yourself in him and vice versa. Most people are unable or unwilling to do that. I can't honestly say that I'm like that.

I was fortunate to not have had family or friends who were killed as a result of the events of September 11. Still, the longer the victims' deaths went unavenged, the more it irked me, little by little, until I began to lose hope. Of course, I read and heard about the tactics that were reported to be used by my government in the search for Osama bin Laden, no longer the stuff of fictional stories to be enjoyed over popcorn and soda.

We tell stories, in part, because of a desire to make real that which we wish were real. And the more layered and complex the story, the more real it becomes. If we tell revenge stories, over and over again, in which we empower our protagonists to do whatever is necessary to find the bad guy, doesn't that reflect a basic desire of ours? Something we would choose to do if all other things were equal?

Perhaps, but in recognizing that some human desires are hurtful, we've set up laws against that sort of thing. Yet when those laws are bent or even broken, we call it a moral outrage. Isn't it more honest to leave morality out of the matter, though, and just stick to the question of legality? See, that's why stories are so important - through them, we can figure out which way of living makes sense for us. We can take the best stuff, leave the rest behind, and through practice, we can discover that torture may be an inexact science at best... but its appeal is strong.

So maybe we need more stories about forgiveness. I am not now nor will I ever advocate for eliminating or censoring violence in media. I'm talking instead about expanding upon another idea and spreading it in the cultural consciousness; adding, rather than subtracting (and this doesn't have to imply a spiritual element, either; Kinyarwanda was written as a secular movie).

I'm not gonna sit here and tell you yes, we should've definitely avoided torture in the hunt for bin Laden, because I'm not sure I believe that. If indeed torture was used, I can live with it - but then, I might feel differently if I saw it happening in front of me. It's so hard for me to give a definitive answer because these are situations that are so far out of my realm of experience as to be practically alien. I can't conceive of the decisions the president or the CIA have to make on a daily basis, but I have to trust that they'll make the right call when the chips are down - and in the end, they did get bin Laden.

Which brings us to Kathryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty. I think anyone who actually watches this movie will clearly see that within this narrative, torture did not work. I suspect that some people may be seeing what they wanna see as opposed to what's really there - and that's all I have to say about that.

There's a theory going round that Bigelow is getting shit about this movie because The Powers That Be within Hollywood feel threatened by her as a woman director. I originally believed that this movie would've gotten attacked no matter who directed it, and that it had nothing to do with sexism of any kind. Then Kris Tapley pointed out this Hollywood Reporter article about Bigelow and writer/co-producer Mark Boal that dwells on aspects of Bigelow's career (whether or not she dated a certain billionaire, whether Boal's really the one in charge on set, whether she and Boal are dating) that probably wouldn't get any play if she was a man.

It's troubling. I'm still not quite ready to put Bigelow up there with the Scorseses and Spielbergs, but along with The Hurt Locker, she has made two outstanding modern war films that will not only stand the test of time, but will be a document to this tumultuous period in American history - and still, she has to contend with articles that describe how gorgeous she is and how ex-husband James Cameron made her who she is and how Boal is the true power behind the throne, and blah blah blah. I do not envy her the position she's in now, and has been for the past three years, but I admire her for her bravery and her vision.

How popular is Zero? I went to an eleven AM show on Christmas Eve Day and the place was almost packed to capacity - and this was perhaps the AMC Lincoln Center's biggest auditorium. It has a balcony! I don't recall the last time I've been in this particular room, and I've been to the Lincoln Center theater a fair amount of times over the years. I got there just as the trailers started and I almost panicked a little when I saw the big crowd, until I saw the stairs leading to the balcony and I got a seat there. I wish I was able to enjoy it a little longer!

Zero has sparked all kinds of discussion regarding the use of torture and US foreign policy in general, so if you've got anything you wanna add to or contest anything I've said, speak up, by all means.


  1. Great review, Rich! Nice that you've seen this already, the perks of living in NY! I'm quite looking forward to this one and I've got a screening scheduled in January. I'm not blown away by The Hurt Locker but I agree that Bigelow is one talented filmmaker. Too bad there are so few female directors out there like her.

  2. The good female directors are mostly on the fringe, but they're out there.


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