Phil Agee, the famous CIA whistleblower, said in 1975, "Millions of people all over the world had been killed or had their lives destroyed by the CIA and the institutions it supports." Hear Kathryn Bigelow on her right-wing defense of torture and vigilantism in Zero Dark Thirty: "I want them [the audience] to be moved. I want them to know that this is the story of the intelligence community finding this man. These are incredibly brave individuals, dedicated individuals who sacrificed a lot to accomplish this mission..." How do you make a pro-CIA movie without being pro-torture and pro-vigilante justice?
TIME's Richard Corliss poses the question as if we began history on a clean slate in 2001: "The 9/11 attacks instantly created a new world disorder... Al-Qaeda's coup also rendered the old book of counter-intelligence ethics obsolete. Bribes and blackmail were still permitted, but no gentlemen or ladies needed enlist in the war on terror."
For Roger Ebert, history ended on a morning in Pakistan on May 2, 2011: "Do we want to know more about Osama bin Laden and al Qaida and the history and political grievances behind them? Yes, but that's not how things turned out. Sorry, but there you have it." Are the prejudices of these American movie critics so instinctive, has torture and vigilante justice become so familiar that they've become invisible - even when presented steadily for two hours forty minutes - or, worse still, acceptable?
"Like a white-on-white canvas, Zero Dark Thirty," writes TIME arts editor, Jessica Winter, "has become a projection screen for the audience's perceptions and sympathies, taking on different colours and contours depending on what the viewer brings to it." This is just another way of telling you - and these days you get to hear this a lot - that whatever insight you bring to analysing this movie doesn't matter, that however you interpret it is merely your personal opinion. This kind of Rorschach-blot test is the resort of those unwilling to offer an honest and courageous critique.
"The film's heroine," writes Winter, "fittingly, is a mystery unto herself, with no backstory; there are many questions that the audience can't ask her, such as "What do you do outside of work?" and "Are you dating anybody?" and "No, really, do you do anything but work?" These are questions, by the way, that Bigelow isn't terribly keen on answering either." Again, Richard Corliss, who titles his piece, The Girl Who Got bin Laden: "What are Maya's political beliefs? Who are her family and friends back home? Does she have a sex life? Doesn't matter: she is her job."
The question, which none of these seemingly intellectually respectable critics are asking is, why is it necessary to construct Maya's character this way? Oftentimes photographed to look like a ruined saint, beautiful and sexy in an austere, intellectual way, Maya is our martyr. It is for us she bears her noble nemesis, it is to keep us safe that she stains her sainthood. In much the same way a certain kind of woman is encouraged to offer her sexuality to a crucified bridegroom, Maya offers us hers. In this sense: you're not encouraged to fantasize sexually about this woman - a lover, a bedroom would ruin her mythification as surely as a vagina would have ruined the mythification of Virgin Mary. You're encouraged to venerate her repressed sexuality. And in doing so, accept the crime she commits on the screen without question.
In a telling scene, Maya tells a detainee: "You must know this is not a normal prison. Here, it's you who determine how you're treated." Thus, the criminal responsibility for being tortured is imputed to the victim of torture. We are encouraged to identify with the torturers, to sympathise with the rigours, the stress, the exhaustion they go through trying to break another human. We are encouraged to identify with Maya: she has given everything to protect us from the threat of terror, she has no life, no boyfriend, she's young and beautiful, self-sacrificing. She is a cliche of the holy warrior, blessed with uncanny intelligence and imagination. The first time we see her, she's wearing a menacing balaclava. And then she takes it off and we see her, looking vulnerable and innocent - what is she doing in this place. Your reaction is to protect her, and all through this movie - even while she's committing brutalities on your behalf - this is what you feel: to protect her.
Maya's adversaries, on the other hand, are pure evil: monsters, terrorists, jihadists, threats to all civilised values. They are our adversaries too. Torture and vigilante justice are the only way that this self-sacrificing woman can protect us against them. Take, for instance, the opening torture scene: Ammar - this spawn of terror who is made to say [thereby evoking the threat of a "thousand-years Reich"] that jihad will go on for a hundred years - stands for everything the audience fears and loathes. From this opening sequence the makers of this film pile prejudicial detail after detail. From the opening scene in black of the horror of the 9/11 attack, you are taken directly to the scene of torture. The juxtaposition of these scenes makes the torture a necessary and inevitable fallout of the attack. Still in the grip of those death-voices in black, you accept - without knowing - all atrocity committed as necessary in the fight against terror.
The filmmakers use violence in an intellectually-seductive way. Bigelow aids our identification with Maya by subtle directorial choices, carefully estranging us from the victims so that you can enjoy the beatings. The trick of making Ammar less human than his torturers, denies him our sympathy. Ammar seems inhuman and incapable of suffering. Rather, it is the torturers who suffer, who cry, who die. Maya, alone, weeping at the end [crying for the choices she's made?]
On a more fundamental level, however, this approach frees the filmmakers from any sort of consideration of what the methods used in the war against terror has done to the soul of this woman and the society that sanctions her methods. And yet the offenses in this film has to be explained to to the filmmakers? "Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement," Kathryn Bigelow writes in her LA Times defense of her movie. In other words, the torture and brutalities of this movie is to sensitize us to the horrors of violence. Really?
There's an emotionlessness, a cold calculation, a rationality to this movie's violence that endorses. The terrorists' acts of violence are perfunctory, without political motive, it is pervasive. Sitting before the screen, you feel exposed to the threat of terror, you become a potential terror victim. We must be clear about the meaning, the intention of this carnage without emotion. "Bin Laden wasn't defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation." Yes, a line separates depiction and endorsement, a "moral" line which the filmmaker repeatedly oversteps. Contrasted to these "ordinary Americans" is the irreconcilable Other, whose insidious, sinister presence is felt in every Arab eyes. This movie does not hide its sympathy nor its antipathy. This is why, at the end you are left with nothing but cold antipathy - except, of course, you've accepted the mainstream post 9/11, right-wing-generated terrorism-hysteria. This is the standpoint of a person who has never imagined himself as the Other. The actions of Maya and her colleagues are shown to be motivated: it is for 'God, duty, honour, and the fatherland.' The actions of the Other - the Pakistan protest, the London bombing by the British-Pakistani [who, in real life, had cited the actions of US imperialism in Pakistan] are simply shown as attacks against "our way of life." Of course, film criticism is necessarily comparative - particularly when a filmmaker ambitiously seeks to place her film amongst greats like Apocalypse Now, Battle of Algiers etc. Is it necessary to point out to Bigelow that Coppola and Pontecorvo took critical stance - the one against a runaway US militarism, the other against the actions of French imperialism in Algeria?
In the end, this movie is not about the danger and soullessness of torture, the horrors of violence, whether employed by terrorists or the state, but a vindication of the methods [torture and assassinations] used by the American state to pursue its aims under the guise of pursuing terror. It is a right-wing propaganda for torture and vigilante justice. I wonder if anyone recalls Maya's chilling comments to SEAL 6, that were it up to her, she'd simply drop a bomb to flatten the compound in Abottabad? And the round-table discussion of assassination? What comes across from this discussion is not the agonized soul-searching over having to murder other humans in cold blood, but state machinery emasculated - except for the lone female - by red-tape. What comes across is a remarkably single-minded justification of assassination. Yes, movie criticism is necessarily comparative. One recalls better films on this topic, like Gavin Hood's Rendition; Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah; Nick Broomfield's Battle of Haditha.
How can a critic, a person refer to Zero Dark Thirty as Corliss does - as essentially "a police procedural on a grand scale" and "a damned fine" movie that "dramatizes a true-life international adventure with CIA agents as the heroes," and fail to realise this is a fine example of how politically-backward current movie-making and movie-criticism is: that the CIA can be glorified as heroes? This is a "fine" example of how much ignorance can be imposed on a movie-goer in the name of movie-criticism.