Saturday, 26 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty and the Torture Argument.

            It’s that time of year again - Oscar is abuzz with frenzy and furore as the usual suspects along with some unexpected surprises queue up to collect their little gold statues. Last year was looking at how great Hollywood and the past used to be, with many of the big prizes being taken by nostalgia trip The Artist and the technical prizes being swept up by Hugo. This year it’s America’s collective yahoo to it’s own victories - a film about America’s favourite president and one about the death of Osama Bin Laden have swept recent awards and are tipped for golden glory as well.

            But this isn’t about the Oscars. And who cares if it’s an America-centric award ceremony? It is American after all. No, I draw attention to the awards because various academy members have seen it fit to publicly call out to veto against voting for Zero Dark Thirty because of its depiction of torture and the supposed insinuation that it gets results. But this doesn’t seem to make any sense because if they had actually paid attention to the film, they would see that this really isn’t the case.

            Firstly, I draw your attention to the presentation of the film as a story rooted firmly in facts. The script is based on the first hand accounts and case files that the CIA allowed screenwriter, Mark Boal (a former investigative journalist) and director, Kathryn Bigelow access to. The film is also littered with real world connections such as recordings of 911 calls from 9/11, news footage from the July 7th bombings as well as interviews seen on the TV screens in the background. The cinematography is crystal clear and harsh in light - this is what happened, this is how it is. This makes the torture sequences much more uncomfortable than if they were to take place within the safe walls of fiction. It’s something that many people do not want to face, but since the Bush administration it’s been a secret that’s talked about as much as Jodie Foster’s sexuality - except Jodie Foster didn’t vehemently deny it.

            Next, we have the consequences of reality on the story. The torture sequences take place towards the beginning of the film but about halfway through, the pace and tone of it changes. This is the point in 2008 where Obama had just been voted president. We are informed of it via a newscast on a TV in the background and the CIA guys seem disgruntled. Then in comes the new boss who slams his hands down on the table and informs the team that there is no one else on this hunt. They are the only ones and their previous efforts had turned up nothing but photographs and rumours of who was in them - not to mention the more unsavoury photos that leaked to the press. Things have to change, America is above torture.

            Finally, just to really hammer the point home, the CIA was sitting on the piece of information that actually leads to Bin Laden for 6 years. They attribute it to human error during a routine reshuffle of the office. So in actual fact, it was that little bit of luck that brought down America’s most wanted - hardly the glorious victory that was expected. This is built upon further with the final raid of the compound in Abbottabad. The language speaks gung-ho military and the scene is incredibly tense (a fine piece of filmmaking), but there is no money shot of Bin Laden’s head exploding or lingering close ups on his body. He dies in a flash and is kept out of sight. He dies as he lived - in obscurity.

            So in all of this, please let me know where the film says that torture gets results? The film is more about the obsession with finding Bin Laden and actually ends on a rather bleak note. Maya (played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain) gets onto the plane home, she’s alone and the pilot asks her where she wants to go. She doesn’t reply and sheds a tear. She seems overwhelmed at finally getting her target, but she also looks incredibly lost. It’s an anti-cathartic ending that asks the audience a very simple question - where do we go from here? Hardly a comfortable question when the last 12 years of your country’s politics has been based on a war on terror that has now lost its public face. 

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