Sunday, February 10, 2013

Film of Exception: Zero Dark Thirty

I'm not sure exactly where to place the blame for the total disappointment that is the (Academy Award-nominated) film Zero Dark Thirty, which tells a based-on-real-events story of "the greatest manhunt in history."  The hunted is, of course, al-Qaeda founder and mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks Osama bin LadenZero Dark Thirty is organized as a series of more or less coherently connected shorts, chronologically arranged, beginning with a black screen and panicked-voice recordings from September 11, 2001, and ending with the 2010 raid on Osama bin Laden's Pakistan compound and his assassination by U.S. Navy SEALs.  There are basically two sequences in this two-and-a-half hour film that are (cinematically, at least) redeeming: the black-ops raid at the end and an earlier scene in which CIA agents try to locate key informant Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti by tracing his cellphone activity in an urban Pakistani market.  That is to say, those are the two sequences that capitalize on director Katheryn Bigelow's strengths.  Anyone who has seen Bigelow's earlier works (The Hurt Locker, Strange Days, The Weight of Water, Point Break) can attest that action sequences are directly in her wheelhouse.  But, alas, those rare pieces of excellent direction are buried deep within a film that is terribly written, even more terribly acted, and which perhaps most terribly follows a narrative arc that flattens out almost all of the issues and questions that would make this film interesting (and perhaps even important) in favor of a reductive made-for-television melodrama about a pretty, plucky CIA agent who delivers history's most infamous terrorist his comeuppance.

I really can't exaggerate how bad the acting is in Zero Dark Thirty.  In defense of the actors, though, it didn't appear that the script gave them much to work with, as almost all of the characters are drawn to have exactly one more dimension than a corpse. The non-American characters are interesting inasmuch as they are incomplete and thus somewhat mysterious, but they are allowed to be incomplete and mysterious only to push along the clunky machinery of the plot.  The American CIA agents, on the other hand, are all utterly unbelievable noir gumshoe-cartoons, and the scenes in which they talk to one another (more often, at one another) are truly painful to watch.  The film's only mildly interesting characters are the Navy SEALs (partly because they are themselves perfectly-rendered caricatures of our collectively-imagined "good ol' boy" American heroes) and the CIA "enhanced" interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke), though almost everything that could be compelling in Dan is summarily dismissed in throwaway comments about the moral ambiguity of torture.

The real disappointment of Zero Dark Thirty, however, is not so much what it does (and does poorly) but rather what it fails to do.  There are a million missed opportunities in Bigelow's film.  First, it doesn't complicate-- and only barely addresses-- the issue of torture, which the film itself depicts as a crucial plot point in the bin Laden manhunt (and which is the cause for much of the brouhaha surrounding Bigelow's film).  As the story passes through the circa-2004 (read: release of the Abu Ghraib photos) period, Bigelow barely waves an obligatory hand at the impact of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EIT) scandal on the American public, American foreign policy and CIA operational policy.  There's one scene in which Obama's "America does not torture" interview is playing on the television in the background and a couple of other scenes in which higher-up administrators remark to their subordinates that their jobs have been made more difficult by the EIT scandal, but there is nothing in the film that compels its audience to consider those as anything more than they are depicted, that is, background noise and throwaway remarks.  The one torturer whose name we know (Dan) leaves the field and returns to Washington at one point in the film. The reason for his decision is vaguely rendered as vaguely related to his experiences with torture, but even that psychological distress is depicted as not much more complicated than your garden-variety workplace fatigue.  Although the infamous waterboarding scene is viscerally disturbing (and is accompanied by several other equally-disturbing EIT scenes), any moral disturbance the audience might experience while viewing those scenes will be a direct consequence of the moral sophistication the audience brings with them, not anything provided or provoked by the film.

Secondly, and correspondingly, Zero Dark Thirty doesn't offer much in the way of complicating the moral or political wisdom of the nearly nine-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden either, far less the moral or political permissibility of his (and many, many others') extra-judicial assassination.  As a viewer who resolutely condemns the latter and deeply questions the former, even I found myself partially succumbing to the excitement and suspense of the dramatic SEAL raid that is the film's climax and takes up the better part of its last half-hour or so.  That is a credit, I think, to Bigelow's skill as an action-film director but a discredit to the film, which never seems to take very seriously that it is "based on real events" and consequently not just another action film.  Saudis, Afghanis and Pakistanis are dehumanized, instrumentalized, tortured and killed in this film as indiscriminately as any Soviet in any 1980's action flick, and with equally minimal moral effect.  What this film really effects in its audience, unfortunately, is an even greater passivity with regard to the reality it purports to depict, including all of the ugliness and wrongness and real danger of the policies at work in what philosopher Giorgio Agamben called our Ausnahmezustand or "state of exception."

Agamben speculated that the (zero-)dark(-side) of sovereign power is that it can always extend its powers in times of crisis by declaring a "state of exception," that is, by declaring the State itself as an exception to the rights and rules that the power of the state is normally meant to protect and enforce.   Our State, the American state, has repeatedly done this since the crisis of 9/11, excepting itself from laws proscribing torture, assasination, rendition and detention, the violation of civil rights and the execution of preemptive wars, all in the name of protecting the power that secures those laws.  We citizens, vulnerable wards of our state's power, are meant to ignore (better still, accept and sanction) these over-extensions of power for the sake of our own interest.  Slowly, stealthily and inevitably-- and we have no doubt seen this development in our own country over the last decade-- the state of exception becomes not only a state policy but a civic postureWhen the citizenry begins to unreflectively adopt this posture, we find ourselves asking ourselves otherwise unthinkable questions like "is torture morally permissible?" (as we did in 2004) or shrugging our shoulders at news like this reporting that the very state that is meant to protect us can legally order our deaths by drone-strike.

Kathryn Bigelow is, of course, a film director and Mark Boal is a screenwriter.  They're not elected officials or policymakers, nor are they priests or professors, and their primary vocation is neither to influence powers of state nor to shape the consciences of moral agents.  Their primary vocation, presumably, is to make art.  But, on the whole, Zero Dark Thirty is like the strange bastard child of Art and Politics.  It seems to want to render aesthetically something like a commentary on power and morality, while at the same time excepting itself from many of the rules that make doing so meaningful or instructive.  If Zero Dark Thirty were fictional, it would no doubt be an imaginative and entertaining piece of action-filmmaking.  Connected as it is to real history and our real world, however, it fails as both art and politics.  It distracts where it should focus, it hyperbolizes where it should exact, it reductively answers where it should provocatively question, it resolves where it should complicate.  In the course of doing so, it ends up reproducing just the kind of audience that it should unsettle, and it rewards that audience for its passive dispassion. If you happen to be one of the unfortunate souls who came to the film already disturbed by the events it means to reproduce, you will either be disturbed by the film's failure or, even more unsettling, disturbed by its effectiveness at lulling you into a distracting and entertaining two-and-a-half hours at the movies.