Monday, February 25, 2013

Review: ZERO DARK THIRTY: murmurs from the heart of the empire

Voices from the morning of 911 play from a black screen. The pictures are worn now. They leave no impact. The voices of the dead deliver their own eulogy. This is "Remember the Alamo" and "Remember Pearl Harbour" all over again. One of the rare attacks on the homeland (a term we are to infer is a post-911 one). We are listening to a disbelief so profound we start to bear some of the shock just to cope with it.

Emotional manipulation? Yes, it's masterful.

Location title. Torture of a prisoner. One of the CIA agents in the room stares intently out of a balaclava. They take a break. The mask comes off to reveal a young woman. Her name is Maya and what she wants to do is go back in and get some more answers. When cautioned about going in without her mask she asks if the prisoner will ever be freed. Never. She goes in without the mask.

The brutalising torture is not delivered on an emotive platter. There is no do or die suspense to it. It is routine. It is a day's work. The contrast between this and the stunning terror of the voices of the victims of 911 is extraordinary. Why? I would have expected a kind of Spielbergian white knuckled squeeze ending in the burst of crucial information. This is more like dentistry.

We are not watching a call to arms but the grooming and hardening of a CIA agent on a quest for vengeance. Again, there's something strange about this. Maya does not behave like John Wayne in The Searchers or Charles Bronson in Death Wish, she is calculating and concentrated, dealing with information or its blockage rather than physical peril. Her emotional outbursts are in response to delays or administrative cul de sacs.

Bad action directors like Michael Bay try to create compulsion through saturation: pop video editing, obnoxious orchestral scoring, agressive audio mixing etc. They create colourful but messy canvasses. Good action directors can be perfectly proficient but can miss the opportunity to use the action as a payload for anything thematic or ethical. Howard Hawks, Oliver Stone, Akira Kurosawa are among the greats of action directors. So is Kathryn Bigelow.

Kathryn Bigelow is not a great action director because she shoots a mean explosion. She's a great action director because she makes dialogue feel like action. This is a dialogue filled film but it never seems like it. Even when the players are speaking in tradecraft shorthand the gist and direction are clear. Cuts happen when they need to and there is an effortless rhythm through the entire piece whether we are watching a conversation very pointedly about adminstrative inertia (a significant stretch of screentime) or gripped by the events of the raid on the compound at the climax. All scenes feel necessary and are given due respect.

The slow near silent glide of the stealth copters moving through the mountain ranges as they close in on the Bin Laden fortress has a gloomy beauty to it. There is no question of what their purpose is. Thanks be for the composer's restraint in abjuring a score that starts at eleven and stays there for the entire running time as has become the norm in the last decade. The orchestra pipes up in this film only when a few broad strokes are called for. Otherwise there is a refreshing reliance on the sound of violence to provide an emotional garnish. Michael Bay would have the brass and strings on 11 in the first few seconds of screen time and only fade them after the production badge at the end of the credits. Here, we are allowed to feel the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of fascination as the war machines glide through the night like sharks to a feeding ground.

Now for the elephant. Does this film advocate torture? Before I answer this I'm going to state that I do not subscribe to the notion that a lack of condemnation of an ill act equals approval of it in a work of fiction. I've long lost count of the acts of violence I've seen on screen that have compelled me at the time yet left nothing other than a condemnation of such violence offscreen. Depiction, even depiction that can surprise you by making you laugh at violence (with not at the perpetrators) does not make me feel like voting for them after the credits roll.

The agents doing the torturing in Zero Dark Thirty approach it the same way they would any other physical duty. Same as when they discuss it. It's shop talk. When one cautions Maya about it, saying that since Abu Grahib and Gitmo they can't do it anymore it is a line delivered with the same regret as might meet the end of a professional privilege. But the most telling moment happens when a group of agents watch Obama declare that Americans don't use torture. Their faces as they watch this are utterly expressionless. They, not we, are beyond accessing emotion on the issue.

One review I read recently claimed that this movie supports torture because information extracted by torture is revealed to be true, as though the very possibility that someone might tell the truth when forced is unthinkable. Or is the meaning that no fictionalised account should suggest it, as though fiction is our ethical arbiter. Are we so flat-earth minded that we are compelled to accept the dictates of our fiction as though they were moral dogma? Or do we live in skins that hold lifetime's worth of experience that allow us our own judgement? (It's misreported that the information is solely from torture; the film shows it to be quite a complex thread.)

Here's a contrary case. Ordinary Decent Criminal is a German Irish coproduction that fictionalises the lifestory of Dublin gangster Martin Cahill. There are several scenes of violence including one excruciating torture which leaves its victim maimed for life. The scene ends with an emotional reversal as the protagonist (the one doing the torture) rounds it off with a goofy Irish quip. The scene is repugnant but not because it is effectively shot violence. It is repugnant because we are being told it's all ok because the loveable larrikin has done it. The entire film is a misfire, delivering violence and criminality with  lashings of leprechaun charm that goes down like grade 2 sandpaper. One of the reasons we cannot love this figure is because we are being told we must.

The relationship between the agents and their violent interrogations in Zero Dark Thirty is so pragmatic and workaday that it is nothing less than chilling. I didn't need subtitles to feel that. It's there between me and the screen and it makes me look at the "good guys" twice. I was horrified by the images of airliners crashing into buildings in 2001 but I opposed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. This film did not change my mind on those points. I had no worries that it might.

The film focuses on the Maya and her increasingly parasitical concentration on the location and erasure of the figure she blames for ten years of world tension. Just as she has poured the torment and ill of her universe in this elusive figure who might never be caught (the original idea for this film was that it end in an earlier failed attempt on Bin Laden's life) we are invited to pour our own projected anger, distaste, pity etc into the light and shadow that she occupies on the screen. It is beyond tempting to do this, it is virtually all we are left to do, given that we have some knowledge of the events and an opinion on them. More so here than in a more distant scenario like Oliver Stone's JFK or All the President's Men.

At the end of this film Maya is sitting in a military plane. The pilot asks her a question whose directness almost begs for a particular response that I feared was coming. But it doesn't. Instead, we watch her face tighten against a quake of emotion that has rendered her reply impossible. We might well be reminded of another question put to her towards the end of the second act. She is lunching in an office canteen. The head of the CIA sits at her table and makes a little small talk before asking her what, outside of this case she has worked on for the agency. Maya is still young and was only younger when she started. She looks back at him and says, as though the thought has only just occured: "Nothing."

The rest is our projection. What would you put there?

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