Zero Dark Dirty
BY ALI HAZZAH
“When you lie to me, I hurt you.”
This catch phrase, spoken in an ominously matter-of-fact tone by Dan (Jason Clarke), a veteran CIA agent, is heard early on in Kathryn Bigelow’s latest, “Zero Dark Thirty”.
From an Arab or Muslim perspective, this highly controversial film is among the most grotesque, bigoted, history-rewriting Hollywood excreta to darken the silver screen since Otto Preminger’s Exodus.
It is difficult, in fact, to assess what is most offensively repellent about this venal, tunnel-visioned film.
Certainly Bigelow’s context-free historical interpretation of the killing of Osama bin Laden is as unconvincing as it is amoral, given the immense seriousness of its subject matter, and the responsibility of a director, when dealing with such an inflammatory subject, to illuminate some artistically valid approximation of the truth, a truth that enlightens us.
Alas, this film — which is supposedly based on facts (as announced prior to the start of the action), facts that were actually fed by the CIA to Mark Boal, Bigelow’s scriptwriter on this project — makes numerous claims that have been widely debunked, or, at the very least, brought into serious question, since ZD30’s release.
At heart, this award-winning director seems intent on presenting some bizarre and completely inappropriate latter day Women’s Lib fantasy of what she has called the “boots on the ground” (a favorite phrase of the chicken hawk set, redolent of rippling American power in the vast, Arabian desert sands) version of the past ten years vis à vis the slow dismantling of Al Qaeda’s terrorist network.
As such, ZD30 portrays some of the most significant political developments of the first decade on the 21st century as some sort of quasi police procedural (with the last half hour actually being the most boring of this overlong film: spoiler alert: the Seals get bin Laden), reminiscent at times, in terms of its portrayal of most of its Moslem characters, of the sort of lurid “documentary” Fritz Hippler might have made, had he lived long enough to be hired by Dick Cheney.
While functionally competent on a technical level, the film visually comes off as an indigestible mix of genres, including a TV news show particularly enamored with its slick production values, a paean to the Doug Liman school of absurdly self-important cloak-and-dagger derring-do, and, finally, a sort of night vision Blair Witch Project knock off, partly set in Pakistan, complete with flashing dark eyes and menacingly swarthy young men.
Its amateurishly-paced and Orientalist storyline portrays the killing of bin Laden as the singular triumph of an asexual, obsessive, young alpha female (with more than a passing resemblance to Bigelow herself, in a younger incarnation), named Maya (water in Arabic, which perhaps has some significance to Bigelow, one that escapes me, but perhaps has something to do with this thing she has about doing the jingo to Tarantino’s Django: it’s her second flic about American wars in distant, parched lands), and played by Jessica Chastain, whose Aryan facial bone structure and unblemished pallor (despite spending a decade in sunny places) no doubt would have immensely pleased the Leni Reifenstahl crowd.
With a main protagonist who is reminiscent at some level of Carrie Mathison, Homeland’s CIA wacko operative, Boal’s terminally dishonest script paints Maya’s participation in the “war on terror” as a sort of demented ball buster: one who ultimately is transformed into a cartoonish icon in Bigelow’s directorial cosmology, which began its current incarnation (Bigelow actually started out her film career from a radically different POV on such matters) with the equally clueless Hurt Locker, a cosmology in which Muslims are depicted as barbaric non-entities, whose irrelevant political motivations fail to merit even the shallowest of considerations.
Ultimately, it is Maya’s deepening moral vacuity that terrorizes, as she progresses from an initial appetite for torture voyeurism, to a full-throated embrace of the once repressed flame of the true, sadistic psychopath. Her pleasure at hurting others, all for the Good Cause, of course, Geneva Conventions be damned, and, in particular, engaging in the sexual humiliation and prolonged physical torture of Muslim men, registers barely a flicker on her taut, death-mask face, but it’s undeniably there, that these are moments to be relished, savored, and prolonged, which is partly why this pathetic movie has been described as “torture porn” by Glen Greenwald, and many others.
That Bigelow pretends to pass no judgement (which is false, as the film inauthentically seeks to maintain this illusion of the veracity of the patently spurious claim that it was waterboarding that lead directly to discovering the courier whose whereabouts uncovered the hiding-in-plain sight location of bin Laden) heightens the moral depravity of this film: it as if we are watching Lynndie England, minus the subhuman IQ, do her sick thing, with no justifying artistic merit on the director’s part, as can arguably be found, say, in Pasolini’s notorious Salò, and other films that seek to portray, and help us understand, some aspect of the more sexually rancid, er, fruits of war.
A number of Academy Award voting members in Hollywood, to their immense credit, have already repudiated this vile film.
In the final analysis, ZD30 is really nothing more than a sort of twisted self glorification of an apparently profoundly deluded artist who, in late middle age, has found it necessary to issue a sickening apologia for torture, one that seems to have a subtext of equating the killing of Osama bin Laden (his actual killing is never shown, for any number of reasons that I can only speculate on) as somehow equivalent to her ascendancy to the top of Hollywood’s male-dominated directorial heap.
Couple this with reports that Peter Bergen, a security analyst who was a technical advisor on the film, had to persuade Bigelow to tone down the torture scenes (in actuality, the CIA’s torture procedure was far colder, more clinical, and methodical, than what is shown here), brings to question the sort of issues a film critic does not normally broach, including the ultimate motivations and perhaps even artistic perversion of the person sitting in the director’s chair. (In this LA Times commentary Bigelow answers criticism of the film’s depiction of torture, which she says does not equal endorsement of the tactics.)
By the end of ZD30, Bigelow, perhaps unwittingly, reveals something of herself, much as Maya does in the final frames, despite her pseudo intimidating circa 1970s State Trooper shades (as if such a get-up would remotely phase a hardened Al Qaeda enlistee).
Despite, also, the protective layers of mercenary US security personnel, and those mini coffin boxes black site American interrogators love to stuff their prisoners in.
And despite the Abu Ghraib-style chains, the menacing abundance of wet face towels for those cringing, broken-down towelheads, and all that fancy, tax-payer financed, hi tech bogus armature and multi screen torture video at her disposal.
Despite all these things, Maya is busted as nothing more than a scared little girl, after all, crying alone in the back of that big cargo plane, crying, no doubt, or so Bigelow apologists might reasonably argue, for the victims of 9-11 finally being avenged, yes, but, unmistakably, too, as the real world of cinematic trophy-getting and ZD30 finally merge, crying for joy, perhaps, at having made it as big as one can get, in a man’s world, by golly.
I’m just not sure Bigelow will be hearing those booyahs, once again, come Oscar time.
Then again, you never can tell about such things.
Ali Hazzah is a writer from Zamalek.