Saturday, January 19, 2013

Some Things Only Happen in the Dark

Kathryn Bigelow had a career before The Hurt Locker, but she didn't exactly have respect.  Long known for 1991's Point Break and being James Cameron's ex-wife, Bigelow must've despaired from time to time.  Then came The Hurt Locker and more accolades than you could shake a stick at, including the Academy Award for Best Director.  When she won that, she became the very first woman to ever win the Best Director Oscar, which I find astonishing, but Hollywood still is skittish about womenfolk behind the camera.

Ten years of staring at the screen
trying to find the answers
Zero Dark Thirty both is and isn't a follow up to Hurt Locker.  While Hurt Locker dealt with a bomb-disposal team operating in the Iraq War, Zero Dark deals with fewer battlefields and more whiteboards.  Following the 9/11 attacks, locating and eliminating Osama bin Laden became Goal Number One of the American intelligence agencies.  Remember that it took ten years.  Ten years.

The trailer will lead you to believe that Zero Dark is an action/adventure movie about our good guys hunting down their bad guys and woo-hoo! we win!  U! S! A!  U! S! A!  Well, trailers can be misleading.  In this case, I get that - seeing SEAL Team Six invade the compound through night vision goggles is undeniably more exciting that seeing men and women in business suits sifting through lead after lead after lead, hoping to come across a scrap of useful information.  But that's how manhunts are assembled.  Someone - a lot of someones, actually - had to painstakingly put together those shreds of information before turning the SEALS loose on a target.  Zero Dark examines that tension - you have to be right about this and confirmation is impossible.  After all, if you're wrong . . . well, the fallout will be way worse than a substandard performance review.

Bigelow was overlooked for Best Director for Zero Dark, although the movie is nominated for both Best Picture and Best Actress (for Jessica Chastain's Maya) and Bigelow has already won the Golden Globe.  I hate this sort of thing - the picture didn't direct itself, nor did Chastain.

Zero Dark has gotten a lot of bad press due to its "enhanced interrogation" scenes, which I found to be raw and squirm-worthy.  Did torture lead to useful information?  Is torture acceptable?  Do we lose our standing as "good guys" if we engage in torture?  And is the sort of thing depicted in Zero Dark torture at all?

The answers will change depending on who is asked the question, but let me take a run at it:
1.  It'll be after my lifetime before they declassify enough information to truly answer the first question.  There's strong evidence that indicates that torture is notoriously unreliable, in part because people will say about anything to stop the pain.  So you get false leads which burn time to sort through.  The movie takes the point of view that torture led to useful information, but no one had bin Laden's personal phone number.  This took work and years of it.
2.  No.  It's not acceptable to make torture official policy.  There's always been the occasional instance of someone taking a recalcitrant prisoner off behind a hill somewhere, but making it policy was a mistake, at least in part because it's hard for us to condemn someone torturing Americans is we treat their people in that fashion.
3.  Yep, we sure do.  We can't claim the moral high ground and waterboard at the same time.
4.  Yep.  Sure, calling it "enhanced interrogation" sounds much cleaner, but I doubt the scenes will leave anyone in much doubt about whether common sense would define it as torture.

To be fair, it's clear that the characters who are in charge of the "detainee program" aren't sadists - they don't enjoy what they're doing, but they find it necessary.  That's almost a saving grace here; I want my torturers to have nightmares about what they're doing to other human beings.  Still, I want our people to be safe, too.  Zero Dark does a brilliant job of confronting you with the dilemma of whether you can have it both ways.  (Side note:  people are protesting this movie for its depiction of torture.  I want to see them turn out to protest Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D.  Americans are fine with horrific violence as long as it doesn't seem real, a point I find exasperating.)

One last point - the depiction of the SEALS.  My hat is off to Bigelow here - these SEALS are the best America has.  They're big, bluff, and hearty, but also all business.  No cowboys need apply.  This is a job and they intend to do it quickly, quietly, and professionally.  They aren't indiscriminately spraying the compound with bullets and they understand the importance of rapidly gathering useful evidence - look at how quickly they strip out anything with a plug and catalog everything before they take off their helmets.

Zero Dark Thirty made me uncomfortable but it also, oddly enough, made me proud.  We have amazing women and men working tirelessly to keep us safe from attack from an enemy that is devilishly difficult to identify.  We give them incredible technology and resources to connect the dots and we know very little about just what they do, because they aren't busy crowing about it like a reality TV personality.  That said, Zero Dark is a movie, not a documentary, so grains of salt need to be taken - it tells A story, but not THE story, which I doubt is ever fully told.


Anonymous said...

When the United States uses waterboarding there is a doctor, and 2 support staff for that doctor present at all times. The target of the procedure is monitored constantly and every single drop of water is measured, only a very specific amount of water can be used, and the water from that room is collected and measured to make sure no extra water was used. Waterboarding is more of a measured medical procedure than a method of torture when it is used by the United States. Calling it an enhanced interrogation is more accurate. Now for the reason of my obviously controversial rant. The movie did not portray waterboarding by the operatives as it is truly applied. The movie forces the viewer to endure a true scene of torture, and to believe that it was in fact preformed this way on many, many guest of our prisoner of war facility's. so, there you have it. I'm done and ready for my verbal beat down for my comments.

Mockingbird said...

Bigelow has made it clear that this is a feature film and not a documentary, so I won't say much on that. I will say that, even with the safeguards in place that you detail, waterboarding is simulated drowning and I would not agree with you that it's "more of a measured medical procedure." But I have no plans to hit you with a verbal beat down! Zero Dark Thirty is designed to get people talking about the topic and, in that regard, I think it's a success.