By Angela Zito

 Zero Dark Thirty, the new film by Kathryn Bigelow that’s got liberals screaming torture, is hard to watch.  Perhaps because it was so hard to watch, I thought it excellent both politically and cinematically.  Finally we’ve got a film about The War—the endless one we’re in–that we can’t immediately disidentify with as long ago or far away.  That we can’t immediately dismiss as simple war-porn apologetics. Ouch.  No wonder so many people just cannot bear it.

As with most of the misdirected media, let’s start with the issue of torture which, not coincidentally, is where the film itself visually starts.  Let me get it out there:  This whole “Did they/she love torture or not?  Did they/she misrepresent the usefulness of torture?” is a canard.  Most salient is the fact that Bigelow dared to put it on the screen at all, and in close-up, shocking detail; that she put it up there in a way that did not celebrate or aggrandize the male ego as a usual and necessary plot element.  The character Dan does torture, and he does it with a kind of no-regrets swagger.  And he has a method, of course.  Until he casually blindsides his protégé, the protagonist Maya—a CIA operative who finally tracks down Osama bin-Laden (UBL in CIA acronym)— with the fact that he’s had it. He just can’t do it anymore.

Not a great deal is made of this scene—which makes it feel more realistic than if he had had a dramatic change of heart about his tactics.  By the time Dan leaves, Maya is conducting her own interrogations, having overcome her initial disgust when watching him.  So we understand that Dan leaving, cycling out, is not the end of torture as a method. Only when Abu Ghraib breaks into the civilian world does the U.S. government start to draw down torture practices.

How many people manage to make art about a war under prosecution? How many even try? (I don’t mean propaganda, but art.)  By making a film about a current war—twice–Bigelow does the impossible.  The Hurt Locker, Bigelow’s 2008 movie, came out during the Bush administration and probably began production as early as 2005.  I took it as a subtle antiwar movie.  Recall the plot?  The hero cannot bear to remain at “home,” the place he is defending. Recall the scene in a supermarket, muzak playing in the background?  It opens with a long shot of William James standing at the end of a cereal isle—a very long cereal isle.  The camera pans back and forth across hundreds of boxes and his puzzled, slightly bored face. Finally he picks up a box at random and we back off to see him punch at a shelf on his way out. Incredible. And now Zero Dark Thirty, a film that not only is not celebratory of our great and victorious moment, but that actually conveys its horror and terror and difficulty.

The Hollywood studios, of course, made propaganda in WWII that would stand right up to Leni Reifenstahl (although, to be sure, it was much more entertaining!  And ugh, Naomi Wolfe, so inappropriate.)  Propaganda doesn’t leave much room for argument or interpretation, which is why it’s much safer to make propaganda during wartime. And make no mistake, we are at war, though you’d barely notice it under this administration.  The very fact that the film has embroiled so many real-world, real-time actors—including some of our Congressmen, who rarely seem to bestir themselves about a damned thing!–in debate about not only the war, but its most disgusting tactics, already makes it an object of artistic interest.

Much of the conflict has been over Bigelow’s slopping up the line between reality and fiction.  Many have said that, since it is “based on a true story,” she had to make a documentary or else the whole enterprise would be doomed.  They’ve said that what was needed, above all, was “realism.”  The same demand seems to be the basis for the debate on torture. In our real life of research, out here, away from The War, we seem to now know that torture is not really good for getting useful.  Even Senator John McCain agrees.  For these critics and commenters looking for realism (some of whom admit they have not yet seen the film, or have even proudly declared they refuse to see it. Snort.) legitimacy of the depiction comes down to subtleties of the script:  So, did the information come out of the torture scene?  Or did it come out of “tradecraft”?

I think Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s point is simply that, whether or not torture gained “our” war effort anything, it was done.  A realistic portrayal of the story (and people are crying for realism!) must then include torture.   I am not alone in this assessment: C. Roger Denson says it too.  (And so does Amy Pascal, the Co-Chairman of SONY, for heaven’s sake!)

For us all now to be shouting “but everyone knows torture is useless!!” seems to be simple bad faith. What do we mean? Are we all asserting that our country will never do it again? And so we’d rather erase its fact from the historical record because we’ve changed our minds about its efficacy? (Denson meticulously pries apart the levels of “moral outrage” displayed by politicians and members of the intelligence community.) Because torture gains nothing, Bigelow should leave it out?  She should pause after the scenes of violence to note on one of those nice intertitles that nothing is gained by these methods, so apparently Americans are just animals? That was obvious to me.  But Dan, the torturer, is an animal who definitely suffers something. And Maya is a crazy “killer” who is completely obsessed.  (Matthew Cooper observes how very “real” her character is to anyone who knows Washington.)

Bigelow writes at Art Forum (the January issue is not online) about how important making this movie with Boal, the journalist, who reported these stories in real time, was for her filming process. She enjoyed what she calls an “aesthetic of restraint” because of the “journalistic imperatives.” She and her people tried very hard to stick to “the real” in terms of mimicking locations. She calls it a “reported film.  By presenting the information, we’re hopefully starting a conversation. But there is no political agenda in the movie whatsoever.”  Frankly, she sounds like a hopelessly naïve journalist—who imagines that journalists are objective except filmmakers?  But she is the farthest thing from a naïve maker of art.

For me, the film’s “realism” lies elsewhere, buried deep in its own materiality on the screen.  I found it confusing to watch at an intimate level, at the level of the eye.

It uses several techniques to keep the audience off balance; depth of field is constantly manipulated. A scene opens as a close-up of someone’s hands on fruit, the background fuzzy, then the focus shifts and we are made to look at people farther away.  But just as we adjust our eyes comes the cut. And later, it’s done in reverse.  The film also plays with scale in the frame—things are too big, too small–we are always straining to get information into our eyes.  Thus we’re sharing the experience of the characters who cannot grasp without great difficulty the vast amount of information they must sift through, much of which is images: the plot hinges on the misinterpretation of a photograph of a person. It conveys the reality of their lives through the reality of the materiality of the image itself in our digital age—distortable, manipulable, grainy, foggy, overwhelmingly too much.

This is The War. This is what we can actually share with people like Dan and Maya… and we have much more in common with them than with The Canaries (see the film for that reference.)  The War is far, far away, on a screen.  It gives you a headache and is over for at least a little while when you turn off the machines. It is terrible and distant. And most of us have never been made uncomfortable by it for a nanosecond. Until Bigelow.

As a film, Zero Dark Thirty is not pretty—even as it is cinematically astounding in many ways.  It is much more about what artist and critic Hito Steyerl calls “poor images”:

The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea… A poor image is a rag or a rip; an AVI or a JPEG, a lumpen proletarian in a class society of appearances…. The poor image is no longer about the real thing—the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities. It is about defiance and appropriation just as it is about conformism and exploitation. In short: it is about reality.

Zero Dark Thirty is not beautiful and it is not about beauty.  Yet it’s been nominated for the Oscars’ Best Picture—I did not think it had a chance, buried as it is in this faux political dust-up. Also  Best Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Actress.

Bigelow is ignored for Best Director, however, which is such shit. The only woman to venture with assurance into the dominant genre of our horribly violent time and place:  the comparison to her protagonist, Maya, is so obvious I nearly forgot to include it.  Rest assured someone is already planning yet another, different, testosteroned-up, celebratory version of The Hunt for Bin Laden.  It won’t star a woman, and it won’t spark debate.  It’ll have a plot, and heroes, and no one on the Left will be the least bit tempted to identity with THAT war at all.


Angela Zito teaches anthropology and religious studies at New York University and specializes in Chinese cultural history and media.  She is a documentary filmmaker and festival curator as well as co-director of The Center for Religion and Media, publisher of The Revealer.