Sunday, January 13, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty and rape culture

I let Zero Dark Thirty (hereinafter 0D30) simmer through yesterday. Partially this was because I spent the afternoon with the brew club (side note: Turtle Anarchy, gracious hosts of the meeting, have an experimental Curry Porter on tap. Run, do not walk, run there and get yourself a pint), and spent the evening relaxing in front of a DVD with Ms Heel-filcher; partially also, because it's good to let a film you didn't like have some time to make its case.

The post after the fold contains spoilers. Oh, and Harry bin Laden dies at the end.

If it wasn't clear in my immediate reaction post, my top-level take is that 0D30 has deep problems. Those problems, let it be said, are not of the craft variety: the film does as good a job as any I've seen in weaving visual effects into the shot so seamlessly that the viewer doesn't even know they're not seeing what they're seeing. You go see Avatar or Prometheus in the theater because you're looking for the visual effects. You know you're being fooled, and you're loving every minute of it. But in 0D30, that's not the case. The effects are hyper-real, and there's very little you could point to and say for sure that what you just saw couldn't possibly have just gone on in front of a piece of 35mm film instead of inside a computer's memory.

(I've heard it said, but can't find confirmation, that Star Trek IV didn't win an Oscar for visual effects because it never occurred to the Academy voters that the whales weren't real. We may be in a similar situation here.)

Similarly, I don't want to suggest that this is a poorly made movie. Indeed, if I had the franchise, 0D30 might well get my vote for Best Screenplay. The writing is really a piece of craftsmanship. And it is that craftsmanship, the way that nothing is left to chance in the writing, that forces me to say what I have to say next:

Zero Dark Thirty is a morally reprehensible film.

I had hoped, upon initially hearing the buzz about the film but before anyone had seen it, that it would be otherwise. I had hoped to see a film depicting and confronting the U.S.'s record of torture and discussing it honestly. I have a strong stomach, and I think that if we as a nation are going to have waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation and the rest of it done in our name, then we can afford to have it depicted in front of us.

To reiterate: I am not at all trying to say that Kathryn Bigelow and her team should not have made a film about torture, or that they should have not put torture on the screen. Those decisions could have been part of a truly great contribution to our national discussion. I wanted this film to be that kind of contribution.

I am, instead, appalled that they decided to make a film whose explicitly stated moral position is that the problem with American torture was that there wasn't enough of it.

It is always a dicey proposition, making claims about the position of a work of art on a thorny question, whether of philosophy or ethics or morality or even questions of how, tactically, to approach a problem which the piece has in its sights. One does not simply walk into a movie, take the words from the mouth of a character, and ascribe the ideas therein to the creators. I have to defend my take on 0D30, and I plan to do so based on the entirety of the screenplay which, you remember, I judge to be a masterpiece of the craft. [Note and disclaimer: I don't have the screenplay in front of me. I'm working off whatever hazily scribbled mental notes survived what was really a quite immersive cinema experience. I have no plans to go back and clean this up once I have a copy of the script in front of me, if indeed that is ever the case. Also: this is not a work of journalism. Things in quote marks are my best attempt, but may not be exact quotes.]

Like most feature screenplays, 0D30 is divided pretty cleanly into three acts. That is just about the last bit of adherence to convention in its writing, however. There is almost nothing classically recognizable as "character development" written into the script -- the characters are there, and they are fully fledged, but we, the audience, are not given any time to meet and get to know them in the usual way you expect to, before the shit really hits the fan sometime around the beginning of Act II. No, this film opens with the shit hanging from the fan already. There are no cute little writerly transitions between events, setting them up and knocking them down; if anything, the progression of events in the film, up until the final go-ahead for the final mission, resembles a hydra, with every bit of success masking two blows knocking our heroes backward.

As I said, I'm convinced that nothing in this screenplay is accidental; in particular, in each of the three acts, there is a line or phrase which is repeated, in the mouths of different characters, in a fashion which serves to tie the whole act together. Those phrases, and the common assent which all who say and hear accord them, are deeply revealing.

The film opens, as you have no doubt heard, with recorded phone conversations from 9/11 placed against a black background. The blackness resolves to a CIA black site -- a one-room building surrounded by some kind of military base studiously pretending that it doesn't notice, while the sun beats down and GIs in sand-colored BDUs and mirror shades keep hydrated in the background. Inside the building, a brown-skinned fellow is tied in a standing position. Three or four people in balaklavas, and a barefaced Dan (Jason Clarke), are interrogating him. Enhancement ensues within a minute. The detainee is left to stew in his own juices while the interrogators step outside; a pair of steely eyes briefly glimpsed behind one of the balaklavas expand into the fiery features of Maya (Jessica Chastain). It is the last time she tries to hide her face from her job -- from the people who, they all fear, will hurt them just as they are being hurt. "Do you really want to do that?" asks Dan, when she turns to return to the torture chamber without a mask. "Will he ever get out?" she responds.

The first act of 0D30, all 45 minutes of it, continues this. We experience directly the torture of at least three detainees; we get to see Dan's gleeful sadism partnered with Maya's rapidly sublimated revulsion. We look over her shoulder as she reviews hour upon hour of video documentation of detainee interrogation. And twice we hear the torturer say to the torturee "you are in control here: the pain which you are about to experience, you have brought upon yourself by your non-cooperation". We hear Dan say it to the film's first torture victim; and we hear Maya say it too, evidencing her purification from any squeamish thoughts which may have once infected her.

Let's be clear about this: this line belongs to the rapist, to the wifebeater, to the brutal cop, and to his partner who's never brought in a suspect with a concussion but is sure that the ones who were brought in that way deserved it. This line, put in the mouths of the film's protagonist and her mentor, debases their characters completely; this should be the moment when the audience realizes that each of these characters is depraved. Instead, the audience is to believe the opposite: that these brave Col. Jessups really can handle the truth -- and can we, the audience, maybe get there too?

Much of my online reading recently has been people talking about rape culture. In the aftermath of the gang-rape in India, in response to the constant flow of stories about the dubious relationship of women to communities that I value or consider myself part of -- the academy, in particular STEM fields, and  atheists/skeptics to name just two -- there's seldom a time that it's not topical to remind people that we live in a cultural environment where the status of people as fully equal persons is more honored in the mouth than in the observance. "Rape culture" is easiest to talk about with reference to women getting raped by men, but the ideas go much farther than that. Central to rape culture is the reduction of a person to an object, whose physical and mental integrity and autonomy take subordinate place to the designs and ends of someone more powerful than them. And this depersonalization frequently is blamed on the victim herself: that slut shouldn't have been out in that dress, so now she should just lie back and enjoy it; that nigger shouldn't have been in town after sunset, we have no choice but to defend our honor and lynch him...

... that Hajji shouldn't have been fighting against us, so now I have no choice but to hurt him until he tells us everything he knows. Partial information will be regarded as lies. Partial information will be regarded as lies. PARTIAL INFORMATION WILL BE REGARDED AS LIES.

And so we lurch from detainee to detainee, from bad cop to good cop to bad again, for 45 minutes. It makes no difference that the first crucial plot point, the first utterance of the name "Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti", occurs not when Dan and Maya are suspending a detainee naked from his waist down and covered in his own excrement, but when they have cleaned him up and are sitting outside feeding him a civilized meal: the break comes only when Dan reminds him that all of this can disappear as quickly as it appeared, and he can spend the rest of his short-ass life interfacing with pipe-hitting niggas, pliers, and blowtorches. OK, I'm embellishing that last bit, but that doesn't change the fact that the film explicitly credits the break to torture.

Now, let's pause for a second to remind ourselves that torture did not actually aid the hunt for bin Laden. It did not help "debrief" KSM or any of the other high-value terrorists who have been captured. And while a work like 0D30, which has a fine-print warning on the label not to take it as anything other than a work of fiction, is not under any legal obligation to correspond to the facts, it is still incumbent upon the artist to assess to what extent they will be engaged in the formation of the public's historical narrative. Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick have shaped the American memory of Vietnam more than Neil Sheehan or David Halberstam ever could have hoped to; Gone with the Wind is the definitive account of an era of history which is rarely plagued by the fact that it never happened, even metaphorically. Never mind that; Hitler wasn't burned to death in a Paris cinema either, and we don't condemn Tarantino for that, so why should this be any different?

Because, of course, I'm enough of an optimist to think that nobody will incorporate Hitler dying in a Paris cinema into their own historical memory banks. Someday I'll get burned by that, but there you are. Meanwhile, back in the real world, we have half of the adult population of the United States still stuck in a timeline where Iraq had WMD, we were greeted in the streets as liberators, and torture was a key tool in successfully prosecuting the Global War On Terror. And this film, for all the times the phrase "confirmation bias" appears in the script, serves to confirm exactly that story.

Ah yes, confirmation bias. The driving force behind the second and third acts of this film. See, after we've experienced 45 minutes of torture, after we get the big break because the detainee doesn't want to go back into the box -- the torture stops. Our heroes have to break out their various forms of high-tech shoe leather and hunt the bad guys the old-fashioned way -- by hacking their cell phone signals.

It's not all fun and hacking, though. Dan has been promoted back to Langley, and Maya has to fight the powers that be (embodied in the CIA's station chief) to get any resources put onto her investigation. STATION CHIEF: Why should we give you two teams, in two cities, to go on a wild goose chase? MAYA: Because all these detainees told us that this guy, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, is a courier to the stars. Some of them were even hanging from their thumbs when they said it, so it must be true. Oh, and the ones who said he was dead or a nobody? Ignore them, I have a really strong gut feeling that they're wrong or strategically lying. STATION CHIEF: No, your mission is to get me people who actually exist and who I can actually blow away with my actual predator drones. MAYA: Let go of my bridle or I will kick you and then file a strongly worded letter with your boss's boss that says you've gone soft. I know I'm right, dammit, and you will fucking let me chase all the wild gooses I want.

But it's not like there's a shortage of al-Qaeda detainees; why not just get more information out of them? And here is where the leitmotif of Act II comes in: first in Islamabad, and then back in DC, we are told that "we can't get confirmation on any of this shaky intel, because we've stopped the detainee program". The rest of the line varies a bit, but "detainee program" is there both times. Now, either the alternate history embodied in this film features a mass release of all prisoners taken under the flag of the War On Terror; or not only are the filmmakers catapulting the myth that torture got us good intel, they're compounding it with the positively nauseating notion that without torture, there's no way to get prisoners to talk.

Man, this movie is really a piece of work.

The second act, about an hour of low-grade CIA action, could be a case study in breaking all the rules of writing a CIA action film. It's tremendously effective, and I have no idea how. I mean, I can point to things here and there, but this act should have the audience snoring. But they're not. Is it the pre-existing engagement with the subject matter? Is it the sense of relief that people aren't shitting themselves on screen any more? Is it the sense of progressive isolation closing in around Maya, even as she snuffs across half the continent looking for a scent? It's all of these things, and a lot more. This script will be studied in film classes for a generation. But that's not my story.

So the end of Act II is the location of a mysterious compound in Abbottabad, and simultaneously, the decision to send Maya back to the U.S. after she survives an attempted assassination. Act III (and the film) ends, of course, with the midnight helicopter raid on that compound; but it begins with Maya haunting her floor at Langley making an unholy ass of herself; haranguing everyone from her immediate superior officer to the DCI himself (played Loki-only-knows-why by James Gandolfini) about the compound; leaving a running tally in dry-erase marker on the window of her office, This Many Days Since Bin Laden Should Have Had A Fatal Workplace Accident.

These are not the actions of a responsible public servant. A CIA agent who pulls that kind of shit should be given mandatory psychiatric help and have their security clearance revoked.

Instead, what is the leitmotif of Act III? From top to bottom, characters assert that they were convinced that bin Laden really was there, not by the strength of the evidence; not even by Maya's international renown with the thumbscrews; no, they were convinced by her unshakeable belief.

Or to put it another way, the CIA's top analyst tells DCI Gandolfini that the likelihood of bin Laden's presence at the Abbottabad compound is between 40-60% -- "shakier than the evidence for WMD's in Iraq". I skate right over the fact that this guy then recommends moving forward with the mission anyway -- if this quote represents the point of view of the CIA as well as the rumors say film as a whole does, then Tim Weiner may have gone too lightly on the agency -- and the table concurs. All except Maya, who proudly proclaims "The probability is 100%. OK, 95, since I know you guys are uncomfortable with certainty. But it's 100."

America, fuck yeah. Better to be certain and wrong than acknowledge the errorbars in your data. But hey, at least this time, the movie acknowledged the presence and validity of the voice of reason. I cannot say with certainty that the implicit moral position of the film is "fuck math, trust your gut" -- because while that is what ends up being done by our heroes, and that is what ends up winning the game, there is still the acknowledgement that it could have been otherwise.

And this does not hold for the first two acts. This does not hold for torture. No acknowledgement is given that any other position than "it is not only not wrong to torture -- it is wrong not to torture" could have moral weight. No, anything else is rear-echelon chickenshit.

And the mission goes ahead. And it is a success. And every male in the compound is shot on sight, without any consideration to whether they are armed. The option of bringing bin Laden to trial is never broached, and Maya sheds a tear when she unzips the body bag and sees the corpse's face -- it cannot be a look-alike, she's too certain for that. The tear is perfectly ambiguous; is it for the victims of bin Laden's attacks? The friends she's lost along the way? Is it that this is the only CIA mission Maya has known -- that she sees herself in a supermarket aisle, lost like Jeremy Renner at the end of his Kathryn Bigelow movie?

What I can't see would be Maya shedding a tear for the path of destruction she's laid down on her way here. All the people she's violated, the human lives which will never be rebuilt after she helped to deconstruct them. No, she, and by synechdoche, the United States, is pure and white and holy and justified, and their enemies get what they deserve and deserve what they get.

All of this? All of this, you've brought upon yourself. You control your destiny, here in this box, with my ropes around your arms and my thrash metal pounding in your ears and my water in your throat.

Why don't you just make it stop?

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