In the indie film Margaret, director and writer Kenneth Lonergan stages a classroom debate between Matthew Broderick’s wimpy English teacher and several assertive students over the meaning of a Shakespearean passage. One of the students responded, “Just because Shakespeare had a character say something; doesn’t mean he, himself, believed it.” I thought of this line while watching Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Just because a director shows you something in a film does not imply belief in that thing’s rightness. Otherwise we would be stuck in a world where we condemn Jodie Foster’s bravura performance and condemnation of rape in The Accused. Or perhaps Clint Eastwood’s opus on the inanity of gun violence and retribution in Unforgiven.
Spoiler alert: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS DISCUSSION OF SCENES FROM THE FILM IN QUESTION. IF YOU WANT TO SEE THE FILM WITHOUT LEARNING ABOUT KEY EVENTS DO NOT READ FURTHER.
Since Bigelow included torture scenes in the film does this mean that Bigelow and the film support the use of waterboarding or walking prisoners with dogchains? This has been up for mostly meaningless debate as of late. I would answer: “no.” And here’s why.
To answer the question one must understand the context and artistic intent. As to intent Bigelow was committed to showing the honest story of the men and women who hunted down UBL. This story included the use of torture by American soldiers and operatives during the initial years of the conflict. This is fact. Sad. But true. So any realistic depiction of this story must include discussion of this fact. Not discussing this would be like showing a WWII movie about Germany that did not discuss the prison camps. Not that the two are anywhere near in comparison to the horrors inflicted.
So then, what context did the director provide for the discussion of torture? Let’s just say upfront the scenes are tense and hard to watch; but not for the same reason that a movie like Saw is hard to watch. If you’ve seen Saw, you’ve seen torture scenes 20 to 30 times more graphic. Heck, if you’ve seen an episode of 24, you’ve seen much, much worse from “good guy” Jack Bauer. From a blood and gore or crazy psychopathic standpoint these scenes are tame. What the camera focuses on is the emotional and psychological game. These scenes reveal the moral ambiguity felt by their actors. By focusing on Jessica Chastain as her Maya attempts at passive observance and the couple of enemy combatants, the scenes revel in the madness of the moment and the toll it is taking on those involved. In fact the act of not filming these as crazy over-the-top Tarantino-esque madcaps, or in showing the actual violence, the scenes are tenser.
This idea of the toll of this undertaking is backstopped on multiple occasions. There is the great scene when Jason Clarke’s Dan talks about his return to D.C. The pain, the horror, the exhaustion is present as Dan confessed that he was done, that he needed to find some normalcy in his existence. This same pain is etched in Chastain’s face during the initial scenes, and the upsetting bile of the situation is seen when she is shown retching after a tense interrogation. A final bit of context comes in one of the D.C. scenes. In a room debating the viability of the info about UBL, Dan stated, “I was there in many of those rooms, no one knows better how good that info was.” To me the line seemed to be a tacit confession that Dan understood the weakness of his previous actions. Remember that the film showed Dan as a failure in finding out the terror plot involving the Saudi Group, and this weaknesses hammers home. The weakness of his faith in himself is counterbalanced by showing the sureness of Chastain’s Maya. Rather than take a shortcut, Maya has spent 12 years doing the nitty gritty hard detective work needed to actually uncover the location of UBL. She has done her homework, and has the confidence of something who knows their stuff.
This leads into a final point. What were the breakthroughs that lead to the discovery, as shown by the film? First, there was the discovery of a story about a man who acts as personal carrier between UBL, al-Jazeera, and a prominent financier. How is this story discovered? After the failure to find out about the terror threat to London via torture, Maya brings a combatant out unto a sunny patio for a nice meal. As the three sit, eat, and talk, she asks questions about the combatant’s story. Who is he? How do he come to be involved with al-Queda? As she listens to his story, she notices this key point. It was by treating the man like a friend, by eating with him, complimenting his courage, and listening to his story that she learns the key piece of info that begins her quest. Second, after some hits and misses she is able to get a phone number for the suspected courier’s family. How does this happen? Ben is able to connect with a prominent source in the Arab aristocracy and leverage that friendship into an offer: a Lamborghini for the number. Last they are able to find and track the courier due to hard excruciating fieldwork, the use of a network of Arab informants, and the bravery of a translator who saves the team from harm on multiple occasions. What settled the case was not some tortured confession but kindness, relationship, and good tradecraft.
The problem, I think, was hinted within a piece I read recently (I think in the 1/15/13 New York Times, I apologize I checked my history and cannot find it). The author stated that the problem for Bigelow was not the torture, but the fact that no one character has a scene in which they explicitly condemn the actions. This would set Hollywood at ease, one character, one off-the-cuff comment. But here’s the thing, this type of ham-handed action is exactly how many Hollywood tent pegs, pardon the expression, suck. A true story-teller shows, but never tells. I refer to this as the Blade Runner dilemma. Sure voice-over narration is great for telling us what a character is thinking, but it has to be spot-on and in sync with the overall tone of the film, otherwise long bits of explication bog the process and spoil the film. I, for one, am happy that Bigelow showed us the errors of torture rather than lecturing us from within a character.