The Morals and Ethics Behind 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Kyle Curtis Facebook

The Morals and Ethics Behind 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Photo by Jonathan Olley/Zero Dark Thirty, LLC. ©2012

As any movie buff will tell you, winter is awards season. Throughout the month of December, movie studios release their high-profile "prestige" pictures to a few select audiences in a handful of cities. In the weeks following, the films are provided a wider release, eventually finding their way in a multiplex near you. After the silly season that occurs every other autumn during an election year--and during the lull before the legislature gets in full swing--sneaking away to a darkened theater to lose one's self for a couple of hours is a welcome opportunity.

Entries about movies are rarely posted in Blue Oregon. While recent years has seen an increased number of film productions throughout the state and in Portland, a closer look at make-up artistry of Grimm or the dynamic interplay between Fred and Carrie on Portlandia wouldn't be appropriate subjects for Blue Oregon. However, if a film (or television show) has far-reaching political impact due to the controversy that surrounds its release, then it would be appropriate to weigh in on this site. And there has been no shortage of stories regarding Zero Dark Thirty, the controversial new film based on the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, set for wide release this coming Friday.

To be sure, this is not a review of the film as I haven't had the opportunity to view a screener. (Still, I'll provide a spoiler alert: Osama bin Laden gets killed at the end.) This entry instead will focus on the moral and political controversy of Zero Dark Thirty that has occurred recently in the media. Even in its as-yet limited release, the film has strongly reverberated throughout the national political sphere. Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain have signed onto a letter to the film's producers last December criticizing the presentation of torture in the film, stating that it does not accurately represent the interrogation practices used by real-life intelligence agencies and falsely suggests that the information used to track down and kill Osama bin Laden was collected through torture. These same Senators have also called for an investigation into potential improper communication between the film's producers and the CIA. Besides the film's politics, other attention has been placed on the film's morals, with a review from Slate describing Zero Dark Thirty's "murky" morals. In comparison with Quentin Tarantino's recent films, which explicitly present a simplistic black-and-white good-and-bad view of the world and historical events, Zero Dark Thirty's moral alignment is less cut-and-dried, despite being based on the true historical events which resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden who--we can all agree--was a bad man.

At the risk of switching gears dramatically, this past week I watched Looper the recent science-fiction film starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who seemingly appears in nearly every other movie these days.) At the risk of spoiling Looper for those who have yet to see it, I enjoyed the film because it provided a unique spin of otherwise typical time-travel tropes expected in movies. I can now count on one finger the number of movies in which the protagonist and the antagonist are the same character. In regards to Zero Dark Thirty, besides all the sturm-und-drang regarding the film's torture scenes, I am concerned that the film is going to provide nothing new and that these much-discussed scenes have all ready been seen previously in other films and TV shows. For example, Zero Dark Thirty's torture scenes sound reminiscent of the The Good Shepherd, during which the scene where John Turturro's CIA interrogator waterboards a Soviet defector/spy is, due to its unsettling nature, pretty much the only memorable scene from that plodding take on the history of the CIA by Robert de Niro and Matt Damon. And ten years ago, millions of Americans tuned in weekly to see the savage brutality visited upon suspected terrorists--and the occasional civilian--by Jack Bauer in the popular series 24. Besides providing a career reboot to Kiefer Sutherland, the producing team behind 24 were right-wing conservatives with a moral standing that wasn't murky in the slightest but instead bordered on the edge of fascism. One of their desired purposes was to inject their America uber alles mentality into the value set of Hollywood liberals, and they were enthusiastic when American audiences--so hungry for revenge in those paranoid days after 9/11--enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to live vicariously through Jack Bauer.

So the idea that Zero Dark Thirty is going to inject this repulsive set of right-wing moral standards into the public consciousness--with theater goers leaving the film saying "I'm anti-torture, but I can see where it could perhaps work..."--is a concern. At the same time, it would be a surprising turn for director Kathryn Bigelow, the Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker. Admittedly, I'm not too knowledgeable about Bigelow's politics and perhaps I'm presumptive to expect the artistic output of a female director through a feminist lens, which would reject such crass notions as nationalism, torture, and the zero-sum (and morally bankrupt) attitude that whatever steps that are necessary need to be taken to defeat the "bad guys." I haven't seen The Hurt Locker, so I lack the ability to draw conclusions from her most recent award-winning film. And its difficult to determine Bigelow's political leanings from the rest of her directing output which includes the cult classic Point Break, the under-appreciated vampire film Near Dark, and Strange Days, a personal favorite. I first became aware of Zero Dark Thirty from a Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times that discussed the character of Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. She is integral to the film's operations, orchestrating the efforts to track down and kill bin Laden. Very rarely do females play such dominant roles, particularly in films regarding intelligence or defense operations. It was due to the script's revolving around such a unique and strong female protagonist that made the project appealing to Bigelow, who described the Maya as being "a royal flush." And, admittedly, this appealed to me as a potential viewer, as the lead female role in Zero Dark Thirty sounds unique from other similar films.

(As an aside, can I say that whatever Chastain's agent is getting paid, it's not nearly enough. Chastain has seemingly leaped from nowhere to provide a series of featured roles in acclaimed films. Despite its faults, Chastain's Oscar-nominated turn as naive and unjustly put-upon Celia Foote was one of the best things of The Help, providing a moral center that serves as a counterweight to Bryce Dallas Howard's repulsive Hilly Holbrook. But it was her powerful performance in The Debt, a fantastic revenge tale of Mossad agents and an elderly Nazi, that helped cement the relative newcomer as one of Hollywood's top go-to actresses. Oscar nominations are set to be announced on Thursday, and despite not seeing the film I would be surprised if Chastain isn't once again nominated for her performance as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty.)

So, in summary, while I was initially intrigued to see Zero Dark Thirty--which is at the top of nearly every critic's year-end "best of" lists for 2012--due to the central presence of a strong female protagonist (along with seeing a first-hand account of the hunt of Osama bin Laden), I am concerned about the potentially repulsive moralities upheld by the film, particularly in regards to the use of torture. Thanks to such films as Eli Roth's Hostel series and the nonsensical Saw films, an entire subgenre of "torture porn" has been developed over the past decade, in which the sadistic treatment of other humans isn't used as a plot device, but instead is the entire plot. Is it little wonder that the rise of this genre coincided at the time during which there was a "discussion" as to whether torture should be committed by our country or not? I am concerned that audiences have become numbed to otherwise unsettling portrayals of violence inflicted onto others, regardless of whether they are, indeed, "bad guys." If Zero Dark Thirty results in relaxed attitudes and perspectives towards the use of torture as a tool to collect information and fight our "global war on terror" then the film rightly deserves to be criticized.

With the film set to hit movie screens in Oregon this coming Friday, what is the take from the Blue Oregon community regarding Zero Dark Thirty?

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