Plenty of solid criticism has circulated regarding Zero Dark Thirty since before it was even released specifically bemoaning its (gritty, of course) celebration of torture despite both the illegality of the practice and the fact that the particular torture depicted was superfluously unnecessary as far as real history appears to be concerned. Regardless of the validity of the arguments (those of Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, etc.), truthfully most of the salient points are moot to anyone with experience watching American films or television programs. This awareness is something we might like to describe as sad or despicable – it is – but the glorification of torture and the normalizing of a false and power-aggrandizing narrative is by this point pro forma, perfunctory and par for the course; Kathryn Bigelow’s movie does little that has not been seen before or served the same purpose already.
Tell-me-where-he-is beatings are as much a part of action movies – films noirs, gangster films, police procedurals, war films, westerns, comicbook/graphic novel adaptations, exploitation films (including neo-exploitation à la Tarantino), etc. – as ardent kisses are a part of romance pictures. While occasionally the protagonist is on the receiving end, in which case some sort of heroic defense is maintained until an inevitable escape, much of the time it is the protagonists – whether antiheroes/criminals or not – who carry out the deeds, encountering some resistance but almost always uncovering the desired information, which is just about always true. The lengthy history of such acts on widely distributed film has no doubt bolstered the public confidence in torture that has prevented any noticeably massive outcry about the revelations that the United States commits it. Coercion is understood to be unpleasant but viewed as a necessary evil – the evidence for which is never empirical, but anecdotally inculcated through compelling and visceral images and stories.
While there do not appear to be any comprehensive studies on the efficacy of torture – unsurprising, considering the experimental ethicality, not to mention the ever-present “need for confidentiality” around “sensitive issues” – it seems reasonable to reject it if it frequently fails or produces incorrect evidence. As an extreme method of obtaining information, it is employed out of a particular perceived necessity that must then heighten the apparent value of its outcome: it is used under the belief that it can attain the real, hidden truth, and therefore it should be unequivocal in its success. Even a single exception would negate the tactic, because it would show that torture cannot be relied upon – and there are reams and scads and teeming myriads of horrifying exceptions.
One, or rather five, such exceptions are shown in the recent documentary The Central Park Five, which coincidentally was released in my city within a week or two of Zero Dark Thirty. By CIA or international standards the treatment endured in custody may not be classified as torture proper; compared with waterboarding or physical beatings the New York police station tactics might be deemed “mild coercion.” The suspects were supposedly forbidden to leave the interrogation rooms until they furnished a satisfactory story that implicated friends and others in the crime of allegedly gang-raping a female jogger in Central Park. They were lied to in order that they might turn on each other for making false accusations that the police invented. Not one of them was even struck by an officer, yet intimidation, sleep deprivation, pressure and deception were sufficient to elicit stories from them that meshed with the police and prosecutorial narrative but happened to be completely false. The kids just wanted the treatment and the detainment to end, so they finally told the authorities what they wanted to hear.
When one really thinks about it, it seems fairly obvious that torture leads to such results. Those resorting to torture are seeking corroboration of a belief already held so strongly that violence must be used to obtain it – hence the interrogators fall prey to confirmation bias, if they are even seeking the truth at all rather than a convenient knotting-up of loose ends. For the victim, any story which does not fit in with this belief only brings more pain, so eventually, if the torturer continues, at the inevitable breaking point of pain the belief will have to be confirmed. If a few black or Latino youths can be and are “mildly coerced” into telling a desirable story for investigators looking for easy scapegoats – and there are numerous stories (272, according to the 2012 documentary West of Memphis) like this, where forced-to-confess prisoners end up exonerated decades later because of DNA tests – it’s not much of a leap to imagine these exact practices being used also against putative terrorists, and for the same reasons. Torture is a method of gaining acquiescence and capitulation, things necessary more for conformity to a known falsehood than for a sudden admission of the truth.
In the context of the debate over Zero Dark Thirty, The Central Park Five stands unequivocally against torture as an extension of the treatment received by the suspects and is certainly far more of a true story as well, though the filmmakers tell it “without taking sides” either: the stance is implicit and self-evident from the facts of the case. The latter film played in San Francisco at one theater (non-stadium) for six days, with two more showings on one day months later at a repertory movie palace, while the former has been playing continuously for months, hitting the majority of the city’s available cinemas, all of the stadiums, and at many simultaneously. Unlike documentaries Zero Dark Thirty has the action, dialogue, imagery and storytelling commonplace to the movies from which audiences are accustomed to deriving entertainment and studios are accustomed to earning hundreds of millions of dollars. It is only because its message and its content mesh so well with standard fare that it has the kind of reception and status that it enjoys.
Thus any impugnment of the film’s content as part of a meaningful political critique is essentially obsolete. The better way – if only because it appears a little different – to challenge its message and its general reception is not through factual or narrative disputation but by rejection of the very thing which is somehow tacitly conceded as its appealing asset: its aesthetic presentation. To analyze the way in which it is broadly admired is ultimately to much more subversively unseat its positions (or supposed lack thereof), as the critical response to it contains revealing truths and far-reaching implications.
It is vulgar to say so, but Zero Dark Thirty is a piece of shit. One resists wielding vulgarity because of typical emotional connotations involved with terms discussing private behaviors, and because profane vernacular is perceived as so crude, dismissive and yet indescriptive as to preempt constructive exchange. The first reason to defy high-flown convention and use the phrase anyway is that the movie was awful, boring, frustrating and stupid, and the feelings stemming therefrom in the theater – coupled with the contemplation of popular critical consensus – were so irritating and addling that a deeply resonant and powerful plosive curse is almost required to capture them. The second is that profanity in general is so commonplace and weaponlike that it could potentially have even more impact when its denotation and full implications are explored more roundly.
A piece of shit is not essentially an awful thing; apart from its biological necessity its disbursement can often provide substantial relief and pleasure. Really, in fact, pieces of shit can be quite beautiful, if not sublime, both in appearance – coloration, shape, contour, discreteness – and sensation, with anticipation and payoff to rival many sportscasts, only with truly direct participation. This discussion is laughable and ungermane only insofar as it is absolutely not permitted for some supremely stupid (non-)reasons of etiquette and therefore can only ever be broached with a sort of vulgar condescending irony shrouded about it, but openness is better for health and these appreciations are not actually any less for being mocked or joked about.
However, a piece of shit is something predigested and broken down, an unchangeable waste product, all flavors and spices and ingredients previously absorbed and processed, something that can only go in one obvious direction, something that is flushed away instantly upon completion no matter how exciting the event. This, coupled with the fact that many defecations can be dreadful, forming and emerging as they have from improper and careless dietary intake, best explains the way in which Zero Dark Thirty fits this terminology.
Celiac-diseased as I am such metaphors occur more readily to me than others – I have perhaps suffered too much disgust and despair over decades already at the disorder’s hands to edit myself for reader comfort – and in a similar way I may also be more sensitive to this film’s techniques and conceits than an average viewer. But just as many seem to believe that severe stomachaches and diarrhea are normal and to be expected after certain cuisines or nights of drinking, one might consider the way in which Zero Dark Thirty affects the spectator an analogously undiagnosed health problem.
In reviewing this movie American film critics at major news outlets have exemplified the very problems that plague the rest of American journalism: near-total ignorance of history, myopic focus on local or national events, inability or unwillingness to use theory or analysis to place events in context, readiness to accept events on their own terms as provided by press kits and official statements, and pretense of impartiality that functions as maintenance of the status quo. Mainstream reportage today consists of the impersonal conveyance of particular data and is practiced by people apparently more concerned with professional security than concern for the world, and so it is with the auxiliary entertainment branches. There is no reason to believe that most critics at newspapers or periodicals (or their online equivalents in most places) are any more knowledgeable or passionate about their chosen topic than their colleagues are about the state of the world, about the real facts and their implications.
Just as we cannot believe that someone who takes President Obama’s speeches at face value and believes wholeheartedly in the genuineness of his rhetoric and compassion has critically studied American history or politics in any depth whatsoever, we cannot believe that someone who finds Zero Dark Thirty a spectacular, great or even worthwhile experience has deeply explored and cared about the vast cinematic repertoire. The film teaches us nothing, nourishes nothing inside ourselves, shows nothing to us of ourselves or of reality beyond the propagandized narrative to which we are already supposed to have become accustomed, and presents nothing in an original or surprising way.
The chief cinematographic and editing style is the handheld quick-cut DTs so popular in the past decade, with nary a memorable graphical composition to linger afterward nor any resounding emotion from a shot held at any length for integrity of performance. Whereas many recent cinéma vérité films employ this technique effectively due to the downtrodden or low-budget state of the characters and settings (Amores Perros, City of God, Children of Men) – there is sensibility as well as aesthetic and social palatability in that someone from the crowd is documenting the events with the best materials (i.e. camcorders) they have at hand – it is patently absurd to see things this way inside the corridors and offices of CIA branches as in this film. Since the perspective is always of and upon employees of an extremely well-funded agency of one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations on Earth, it is as highly manipulative as it is inconceivable to pretend that some bystander (crew of bystanders, rather, what with simultaneous cutting to disparate vantage points) is running around the torture chambers and managerial desk conversations with his personal camera when the actual action to “follow around” is mostly static and there is no risk to his person. This device is plainly used to buy an undeserved intensity and sense of veracity cheaply (and incongruously) from previous conventions.
Neither the screenplay nor its performance merit any praise for the unremittingly jargon-heavy, contentless and cliché-riddled exchanges between depersonalized bureaucrats. Jessica Chastain, nominated for an Oscar for her leading role, may be a capable actress but in this film she is basically a robotic gynoid – no doubt as she was directed to be – who motors through uninflected lines as monotonously as an automated computer text reader, betraying emotion for a few brief seconds in a couple of instances. A dogged confident humorlessness is the single note that scarcely changes over time or varies between the characters save for a few by-the-numbers supervisorial headbutts. The stock dialogue and the constant cutting destroys whatever enlivening performances or noteworthy personas might have been. Again the sheer ahistoricity of critical accolades for this framework is astounding, as a recent Bay Area Hitchcock retrospective demonstrates: no character in most of Hitchcock’s cinema (plenty of spies and intrigues, yes) receives any less than unique idiosyncracies, a wide array of engaging and convincing emotions, and supreme humor and intelligence; plots are clever and well-fashioned in a way that uplifts, rouses and rewards the audience; cinematography is expressive and assists the actors in delivering the film’s resonant themes, action and atmosphere. There is a gaping, malnutritive lack of any of these elements in Zero Dark Thirty, not to mention almost all of the other 2013 Oscar nominees for best picture.
Apart from the boring and nonsensical style it is worth reiterating the fact that the film is telling a “true story” based not upon some unmentioned yet actually documented part of history that could enlighten and inform an ignorant audience – of which there are countless examples and possibilities – but instead upon the very extent to which that audience has already been made ignorant and pushing it further. A film like Costa-Gavras’ Missing, for example, tells the factual but until-then largely unknown story of an American citizen, Charles Horman, whom is executed during the US-backed military coup in Chile in 1973 (the first September 11th, for South Americans). The US State Department sharply criticized and rejected the film’s message, and it took years before national newspapers reported that its events were true – and the full implications, which are only suggested as accusations in the movie, have only gradually gained traction over time as more documents have been declassified. (Horman obtained knowledge just prior to the coup of US military presence in the region; the obvious suspicion is that he was executed or allowed to be executed for the sake of hiding this.) Heavy redactions still mar the record of the complete truth, but Missing can at least be credited with calling attention to unpleasant government practices that few are made aware of.
Conversely, Zero Dark Thirty purports to tell the audience the truth based on strictly classified information from the viewpoint of an agency interested in high secrecy, yet information already widely reported in the media without proof or documentation other than the assurances of official spokesmen. Rather than furnish the viewers with something they could see but have not been given access to, viewers are given access to something they are not allowed to see. The political and disinformative implications of this are obvious, moreso with the cozy relationship between the filmmakers in this case with the Department of Defense, the White House and the CIA, in contrast to the antagonistic governmental relationship in the case of Costa-Gavras. We see an image of a dead bin Laden in the film which we are not permitted to see in reality, which thereby bolsters confidence in a narrative which has surprisingly little evidence provided for it in reality.
Just as we are supposed to accept as given the fact that the film’s technocrats know what they are constantly talking about, we take for granted the correctness of its story and the righteousness of its ultimate act. The notable difference between this film and others of the action repertoire – and a much more chilling one than its use of torture – is that neither the subject of that torture, nor more importantly the main villain around whose death the story pivots, is ever depicted in the film as doing anything wrong or even untoward. Other stories need to justify their acts of vigilante retribution (see Django Unchained), but in this film the propriety of or reason for the violence is assumed purely by virtue of who is doing what to whom and whether or not that gels with recent journalistic reports. In other words, we are no longer expected to need proof; it is sufficient only to mesh behavior correctly with a prefigured understanding. Commentators are split on whether the torture in the movie is shown as effective or ineffective, but few if any mention qualms with that aspect of the story which so perfectly proceeds from the official story on which it is based: dearth of evidence.
Whether this film is perceived as supporting torture and even the War on Terror or not, it disturbingly normalizes the disdain for legal process and international law implicit to governmental behavior. The domestic justice system will go to extreme lengths to find and try suspects in court for individual cases of murder – something in which many take pride even as it commits grave errors regularly – but for some reason when it comes to the greatest alleged crimes, accessible and demonstrable evidence becomes unrequired, as does a trial altogether – we can just take our leaders at their word as they begin wars and kill thousands of people in pursuit of their suspects, whom they will also kill without need for legal conviction. There is no appropriate response to this except to be utterly appalled, disgusted and disillusioned.
In parallel there is nothing to concede to Zero Dark Thirty in terms of artistic achievement. It may seem exaggerated to say so, but the false rewards given to the schlock that this film trades in are tantamount to the false recognition given to the watery classified and redacted half-stories which our authorities peddle to us. Serious vetting of critical perspective is insidiously overlooked in the former perhaps even more than the latter, and if we exalted truth and art above our sense of comfort in the predominant corrupted structure of our lives we might end up with more magnanimity and better magnum opuses than those we currently have to endure.