Zero Dark Thirty : The Politics of Art or Why All the Critics Are Wrong

Now that the dust has settled a bit around Zero Dark Thirty, and as the Oscars approach this weekend, we can see the lines of skirmish forming more clearly. On the one side are the people like Glen Greenwald, Steve Coll, Naomi Wolf, and Frank Bruni who see the film as an example of poor journalism and an apology for torture. On the other side are filmmaker Katheryn Bigelow, screenwriter Mark Boal, Michael Moore and Roger Cohen among others who claim that the film is anti-torture and makes no claims to journalistic accuracy as it is, in the end, a work of fictional art.

The critics, by and large, are political writers who are judging the film on its political merits. The defenders tend to simply say that the film is a depiction, not a judgment. Both set of responses have come down to asking what political message the film sends. But, as the producer Louis B. Mayer once famously said in response to a question about a film's message, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union!"

Mayer was right. It makes more sense to ask "how" a film means than "what" it means. Very few people have taken the time to look at the way Zero Dark Thirty tells its story visually and tonally. Like novels and poetry, film requires close, careful reading, which many of the critics of the film have ignored in their rush to judgment.

I think it is impossible to see the film as celebrating torture or arguing that torture was what led to finding Bin Laden if you look at the way the film is shot. The torture scenes themselves are filmed in settings that are far from impressive. They look more like Abu Ghraib than the back rooms of army bases or Langley and lit in a way that speaks of slovenliness and haphazard cruelty. Maya, the protagonist played by Jessica Chastain, is initially intimidated and disgusted, it would seem, by what she first sees. It's worth pointing out that the name "Maya" means "illusion"in the Hindu religion -- the illusion that we project on the world rather than see reality. If we think the name was chosen for a purpose, then our main character is caught in an illusion of her own making -- whether that is the false hope that Bin Laden's capture will change the world or whether it is that the procedures of the CIA work well. The torture victim in the film is kept awake by the music of the rock group Rorschach, which is interesting because the screenwriter Mark Boal has said that Zero Dark Thirty is a political Rorschach test for the viewer. So both Maya and the viewer's perceptions are being questioned by the film.

Given that the torture scenes are so repulsive, but shown nonetheless, it is clearly Bigelow's goal to make us never forget the horror and demeaning nature of torture both for the victim and for the torturers. The screenplay includes moments in which Dan, the main torturer, does reflect on the dehumanizing nature of torture.

Unlike many CIA/spy movies that make the opeatives all knowing and their headquarters and locations glamorous, gleaming, and minimalist, Bigelow opts for messy offices in rundown buildings with people who are largely badly dressed nerds. An iconic moment in the film is when a rag-tag and at this point ineffective group of thirty-somethings are reprimanded by a superior who tells them that there are no other people working on this project -- that they are it. They look at each other forlornly as we the audience realizes there is no seamless perfection running this organization with Tom Cruise at the head but simply an almost nonexistent cohort of office temps.

All the key moments in the film are shot in an understated and non-heroic way. When the key connection is made that correctly identifies the courier for Bin Laden, it is an intern whom we never see again who casually mentions that she found an overlooked document . It's worth pointing out that only misinformation up to this point has been attained by torture, and now long after Obama has banned torture, this misfiled document emerges. Reviewing interrogation tapes (and it is unclear and unknown if any of these were done under the duress of torture), Maya is cleared from one "illusion" and enters another.

The Navy Seal segment is shot in blurry night vision, which gives us less than a direct view of what is happening, as might be done by shooting in HD. The soldiers are all masked and the viewpoint is through their night goggles -- all of which defeats any grandiose shooting of the event or tying it to a charismatic protagonist. The mission, as we learn is to kill Osama, not to take him hostage as the White House claimed, and the invasion of the cramped house filled with women and children is nothing short of depressing, including the wailing and begging of the women and crying children and the wanton slaughter of any male who comes into sight.

The final moment when Bin Laden is killed is a non-moment cinematically. We don't really see what happens and there is no "money shot" of triumph. Rather the death is anti-climactic, mundane, and banal. Bin Laden ends with a bang without so much as a whimper, and since we've already been told that he is a no longer in control of al Qaeda, the moment is so deflated as to be almost absurd.

As a feminist filmmaker, Bigelow critiques the ultimate male bonding scene, in which the Seals return to a tent on their base, carousing and whooping it up, with a body bag on a table. As Maya enters, she walks through their hilarity and chaos, silencing them with her gravitas. Again, Bigelow eschews any sense of glorification and heroism by marking Maya's entrance as the somber chord that chastens the Seals. She walks over to the body bag, unzips it, looks down, and closes it up. We don't see Bin Laden's face as we are held at a middle-distance by the camera. The whole moment that the film has built up to is crafted as an ironic and deflationary shot. The film ends with Maya boarding a huge and empty transport plane, sitting alone and then sobbing. What heroic film do you know of that ends with the female protagonist weeping uncontrollaby?

As part of the Rorschach test that the film is, we are not told why she is weeping. Is it because the whole mission has been so finally anti-climactic? Is it because the seediness, tawdriness and pointlessly of this pursuit has hit her? Is it just an emotional relief? Or is it, as one particularly obtuse critic has said, because she now no longer has a job? None of us can say, but the ambiguous ending is just one more sign of the skilled, complex, and subtle filmmaking that Bigelow has performed

If there has been this split in agreement about the merits or demerits of the film, can we not say that it is precisely because Bigelow has crafted a work that is open to interpretation, that is dense and complex, that it is -- in short -- a very effective work of art, story telling, and politics?