Zero Dark Thirty
Google Zero Dark Thirty and then look at the images. Go ahead…I’ll wait…
What do you see?
SEALs stacked along a dirty compound wall, suppressed weapons at the ready, panoramic night vision goggles, digital camouflage…the future soldier here, now.
Jessica Chastain’s striking profile reflected in the glass of the framed American flag, her tired blue eyes staring down at the ground. Or petulantly standing, arms crossed, hidden behind aviator sunglasses at some unnamed camp in Afghanistan.
Kathryn Bigelow boldly directing from the back of a car, radio in hand, in action.
The only still you’ll see from the film’s torture scenes is this one. Jason Clarke’s determined face fills the frame, and we can tell he is filled with purpose, with urgency, with agency. We don’t know, but very much suspect, that the person he is so intently addressing lacks the later of those things, and only because we’ve read all about it over and over again. It doesn’t matter though, because this film isn’t about him.
I point this out not because I want to join in the criticism of the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, whether it is technically accurate, whether it lead to critical intelligence or not, whether it was justified or not. None of that, I would argue matters. Sony Entertainment simply knows its market, and its market wants to see all the beautiful and powerful and wonderful things it imagines war to be. It is the hero’s journey at its apex and we get to be there in the final moments when the great villain is brought down. Showing scenes of torture would add unwelcome emotional complexity to this narrative running through the market’s mind, and there are people to be paid, we must remember.
This film isn’t about the War on Terror, isn’t about torture, isn’t about terrorism, isn’t about the covert world of intelligence apparatuses. This film is about obsession, specifically American obsession and the manifestation of that obsession in the compulsive behavior we exact on the world. As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think of an addict fiending, and then getting, their next fix. Instead of the heart-pumping adrenaline rush from the action, or the feeling of triumph at a huge mystery being solved, I just felt sick that a people could debase themselves so much for such a small thing.