“Zero Dark Thirty”
If Kathryn Bigelow's latest, about the hunt for Bin Laden, is "just a movie," it's solid entertainment. But Mark Metcalf's not sure about that.
Let’s see if we can talk about Zero Dark Thirty as just a movie for a moment. Let us delude ourselves and think of it as an entertainment.
The narrative structure is brilliant. Kathryn Bigelow, the director, loads the gun by playing the cell phone recordings of actual people who were trapped in the World Trade Center after the planes struck, over a black screen with just the date (September 11, 2001) in the center. This is at the very beginning, before anything else has happened.
From that moment on it is not “just a movie.” They have used a moment and an event that is deeply engraved in the global consciousness to motivate the next two plus hours of ‘entertainment’. I don’t know if it’s fair or not but it works.
Now – if you are willing to continue to delude yourself and watch it as “just a movie” – from here on everything is fair. In movie terms, we are now in the pursuit of the people who perpetrated this horrible thing to mothers and fathers, sisters, wives, husbands, friends, neighbors, and children. The morality of torture is not an issue if we are watching a “movie.” Heroes can do whatever they need to do to save us. We forgive them. We applaud them. We each have to answer for ourselves whether torture is a legitimate tool in the continuing war we fight each day with terrorists.
The story is both so familiar and so complicated that I won’t replay it here. The pure detective work of finding where the bad guy is becomes so complicated that I gave up trying to follow it and trusted that it would go where history has told me it went. The good guys win; the bad guys lose, and the good guys suffer from loneliness and isolation because they are dedicated to their jobs. The good guys in this film, as in so many, are working stiffs. It is not the politicians or the administrators, upper or mid level management; it is the agent in the field, the soldier doing his duty, the simple guy with a family somewhere punching a clock, looking for some advancement, doing his job. It’s an “American movie” movie, and it follows the language of movies right down to ending on a medium shot of the heroine, alone, wondering what she has done it all for and what to do next.
Except that it is not “just a movie.” It can never be, and it is disingenuous for the makers of the film to hide behind that notion when the veracity of what they have done is questioned. And much of it has been and should be questioned. There are those, who purport to know, who say that in no way did torture of detainees play a part in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. It does in the ‘movie’ version of the story. There are those who say that the principal character is based directly on a woman who worked for the CIA. There are others who say she is an amalgam of several people. So, I am left not knowing whether the scene when the lead character is leaving her home and terrorists shoot up her car with machine guns is something that happened to Maya, or to someone else, or if it was made up by director and screenwriter to remind us of the risks that these people who are trying to make our world safe live with. That is the problem with entertainment that is based on history. Who decides what ‘the truth’ is?
Kathryn Bigelow is writing – or rewriting? – our recent history. Someone is going to do it. Ben Affleck did it with an earlier piece of our history in the Middle East when he made Argo. Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg do it in Lincoln. Even Ruben Fleischer did for Los Angeles history, albeit in cartoon fashion, when he made Gangster Squad.
When Kathryn Bigelow won an Academy Award for her direction of The Hurt Locker, there were some people who said it bore very little relationship to the reality of men and women who actually work as soldiers with IEDs and other bombs in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Yet what made the movie work was the way that they seemed to take you right along on missions, made you feel part of the threat and the danger. What made it work was its feeling of authenticity.
What makes Zero Dark Thirty work is that same authenticity. But what if part of it isn’t true, isn’t authentic? It should make us question; it should make us doubt. There are deeper questions about perception and reality here. Deeper than this format allows for. But there are questions about the show business and what we ask for from our ‘entertainments’ that we should be addressing.
Zero Dark Thirty opened wide last Friday. It’s playing at a movie theater you now, and will be for a while. It is a very well-made movie. It’s about a moment that we all lived through and continue to live through. It’s about the people who are our guardians. We choose them. We elect them – or at least we elect the people who hire them. We should know the truth and protect it. Demand the truth.