Sunday, January 13, 2013
Isolation and Solitude in "Zero Dark Thirty"
I just returned from seeing "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012) in the theaters. I was amazed at how crowded the movie theater was for a Sunday morning screening. Clearly, this movie has become an "event," especially in Washington, DC. I don't know if I have anything particularly original to add to the ongoing dialogue about the movie, but I agree it is an injustice that Kathryn Bigelow was snubbed by not receiving a Best Director Oscar nomination for this film. (Especially since the movie received nominations in most other major categories.) Bigelow directs this movie in such an assured, confident manner that she never has to over-dramatize the events being depicted. As such, the movie has a low-key, laid-back quality that was awe-inspiring and which gave it credibility. Throughout the movie there are moments and events that another director would have over-played and wrung out every ounce of unnecessary pathos. But Bigelow avoids this and so the movie has a very clear-minded, almost detached perspective that was intelligent and refreshing. I do not have first-hand knowledge as to whether the events depicted in the movie are accurate, but Bigelow has an amazing attention to detail that lends credibility to her endeavor. Screenwriter Mark Boal also does an amazing job spinning this tale with dozens of characters without the audience getting confused or losing their place in the story. By the time the movie reaches its inevitable conclusion at that infamous compound in Pakistan, you are on the edge of your seat even though you know the outcome of the story.
With regards to the vitriol that both Bigelow and the movie have endured concerning the treatment of torture in the story, I do believe that Bigelow was sincere and correct when she stated in interviews that she wants to leave the audience enough room to draw their own conclusions on the topic. The movie does not, as Naomi Wolf suggested, glorify or condone torture. (I realize that this is something open to debate and I am fine with people disagreeing with me so long as the comments and discussion, if any, remain civil.) Torture is portrayed in the movie as ugly and unpleasant as one has imagined it to be. If Bigelow made this movie and did not include those scenes, she would have been criticized for having white-washed the subject matter. I think it is admirable that Bigelow assumed the audience was intelligent enough to interpret the movie without heavy-handedly beating them over the head with a scene that explicitly stated to them, in case they didn't realize it, that torture is unpleasant and horrifying and potentially dehumanizes all who are involved with it. In my personal opinion, I also do not believe that Bigelow's depiction of torture in these scenes explicitly, or implicitly, state that these techniques directly led to the discovery of Bin Laden in Pakistan. In those scenes, some useful information is obtained, but I believe the movie makes a point of underscoring how what came out of this endeavor was also not 100% effective. The movie makes it clear that the discovery of Bin Laden's hideout came about from other methods of intelligence gathering. So for Naomi Wolf and others like her to suggest that the movie is meant to justify, or serve as an apology, for the use of torture is way off base. Additionally, for Wolf to draw analogies between Kathryn Bigelow and Leni Riefenstahl is irresponsible and also shows Wolf's limited knowledge and understanding of history. Riefenstahl's films utilized brilliantly composed and edited images in a conscious effort to glorify the abhorrent National Socialist Party of Germany. Bigelow's film has no such purpose in-mind and I would argue that her movie remains largely apolitical.
I have wondered for awhile if the criticism that has been mounted against "Zero Dark Thirty" would have been as strong or vitriolic if it were directed by a man. (I hesitate to say that because the last thing I would want to do is to say something that might be condescending to Kathryn Bigelow.) I have felt at times that the liberal-leaning critics of the movie are particularly outraged because a woman directed the movie. Perhaps they operated under the expectation and assumption that a woman would make a movie that explicitly, and unequivocally, stated that torture is bad and that would be clearly sympathetic to a liberal viewpoint by portraying the CIA and the U.S. military personnel in an unquestioningly negative light. The fact that Bigelow defied that party line and attempted to give the CIA and the U.S. military their due may have been seen by the liberal intelligentsia as a "betrayal," and that may explain why they have come out in full force against Bigelow and the movie. One reason I have gotten this impression is because Naomi Wolf's article/open letter in The Guardian begins with her reminding Bigelow that "many young women in film were inspired as they watched you become the first woman ever to win an Oscar for directing" before she launches into her attack upon Bigelow for making "Zero Dark Thirty" by rhetorically asking her "(w)hat led to this amoral compromising of your film-making?". (For the record, I am middle-of-the-road when it comes to politics, so I am no Fox News-type Neo-Con by any stretch of the imagination.) I have a feeling that if Martin Scorsese had directed the movie, the scenes of torture would have been noted by critics, and there might have been a spirited debate about it in scholarly journals, but I don't think it would have risen to the level of controversy that it has. This double-standard that I believe Bigelow may have been subjected to could help to explain why she was snubbed by the Oscars. At the very least, whether or not gender had anything to do with her Oscar snub (and I acknowledge that it's entirely possible that my theory is incorrect and that gender was not a factor in this situation), I do believe that Bigelow angered liberals because her movie did not conform to the expectation that Hollywood filmmakers always express a clearly left-leaning viewpoint. The fact that actors David Clennon (who?), Ed Asner, and Martin Sheen have all come out condemning the movie also suggests the extent to which the movie defied the expectations of even those who are from the entertainment industry.
I also feel that Bigelow could have been snubbed in the Best Director category because she comes across as a very humble individual in all of her interviews promoting the film. In an interview with the New York Times, Bigelow was eager to highlight the contributions her crew members made to the movie, rather than simply touting herself. It was refreshing to see a major filmmaker acknowledge the collaborative nature of the medium, rather than hog the spotlight. However, it's possible that this may have undermined Bigelow's chances for a nomination because it may have allowed Oscar voters to take her immense contribution to the movie for granted. In this respect, I disagree with critics who feel that the Maya character played by Jessica Chastain in the movie is supposed to be an extension of Bigelow's own personality. As portrayed by Chastain, Maya remains a cold, at times off-putting cipher throughout the movie. Maya is clearly intelligent and has determination, traits which Bigelow conveys in all of her interviews, but you never sense a warm or humane quality from Maya. (In contrast, Bigelow conveys an inherent decency and humanity in all of her interviews which makes it clear why she is an effective leader on a film set.) Maya is quick to contradict and chastise her superiors and her colleagues, eager to have her contributions recognized by everyone, and does not appear to possess an ounce of humility or empathy. Diplomacy is clearly not her strong suit.
Casting Jessica Chastain was an unlikely risk that ultimately paid off. Chastain has a high-pitched, at times squeaky, voice that normally does not convey gravitas, presence or authority. Her co-star Jennifer Ehle, who has a supporting role as one of Maya's colleagues, possesses much more warmth and wit than does Chastain. The earthy Ehle would have been a much more expected and conventional choice to play Maya instead of Chastain, as she would have evoked audience sympathy from the get-go. But by casting the unsympathetic Chastain, I think Bigelow is expressing how the kind of person who would have devoted a decade of her life to the hunt for Bin Laden would also have to be an unconventional individual who thinks outside the box and is unconcerned with the niceties of life. The scene where Maya briefs the Navy SEALs on the mission normally wouldn't work because Chastain's high-pitched voice does not make her come across as a natural leader, but Chastain nevertheless sells the scene by conveying Maya's unapologetic arrogance and determination that she is absolutely correct in her analysis and assessment of the situation.
At times, "Zero Dark Thirty" reminded me a great deal of "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991). Both films involve talented young women working for a federal law enforcement/intelligence agency who are on the hunt for an elusive criminal in hiding. In the case of "Lambs," Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling is on the hunt for the serial killer Buffalo Bill. Unlike Maya, however, Foster's Clarice is a much more accessible, understandable character. Clarice has moments of warmth and wit, remains exceedingly humble, is diplomatic at all times to her colleagues and superiors, and is simply a much more mature and self-aware character. At the end of "The Silence of the Lambs," you get a feeling that Clarice is at the start of both a potentially brilliant career and hopefully fulfilling life. In contrast, because Maya appears to have no life and no friends, she has nothing to look forward to once her mission has been accomplished. Which is why the final shot, a close-up of Maya crying in the back of a C-130 flying her back to the United States from Pakistan, is so haunting. Earlier, when the SEALs returned from the compound, hugged and patted one another on the back, and congratulated each other for a job well done, she was unable to share in that moment with them because her inherent nature prevented her from building a rapport with her colleagues. In some respects, she is as isolated as Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) at the end of John Ford's "The Searchers" (1956). Both characters spend a decade in a relentless, obsessive search for an individual whose whereabouts are unknown. When the search is over, both characters find that their anti-social, almost narcissistic, nature prevents them from enjoying the fruits of their labor. For Maya, there is no deep insight or revelation to be gleaned from this experience, now that Bin Laden is dead, because she has no one else to share the moment with in the world.