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Film Review: Aesthetics of Politics: Zero Dark Thirty

Published onOct 29, 2013
Film Review: Aesthetics of Politics: Zero Dark Thirty

The Bush Administration’s declaration of a global war on terror—a foreign policy imperative continued below Obama’s banner—inaugurated more than the attempted realization of a neoconservative “Project for a New American Century.”1 It amplified class power through the accumulation of dispossessed natural resources from foreign lands and the aggressive neoliberalization of economic policies.2 An all-out media blitz—“shock and awe”—established the aesthetic contours of these objectives and generated its unique visuality: soldiers’ video diaries, green-tinted night-vision footage, embedded journalism, and jihadi torture tapes.

Documentary and fiction filmmakers mined this visuality in pursuit of aesthetics concomitant with contemporary politics. Documentaries such as Alex Gibney’s examination of extraordinary rendition in Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), Charles Ferguson’s No End in Sight (2007), which explored the invasion of Iraq, Errol Morris’ procedural re-enactment of prisoner humiliation in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Standard Operating Procedure (2008), and Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s depiction of combat in Afghanistan in Restrepo (2010) – to name only the most notable – were produced alongside a host of forgotten fictions working through the war’s impact on Americans at home and abroad. For instance, the most trenchant of these, Brian De Palma’s Redacted (2007), failed to find an audience interested in its violent denunciation of the horrors committed by American servicemen.

Yet two dramatic works directed by Kathryn Bigelow in collaboration with the writer-producer-journalist Mark Boal—The Hurt Locker (2009), an Oscar-winner about an ordnance disposal squad in Baghdad in 2004, and Zero Dark Thirty (2012), a ‘journalistic’ recounting of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden from the perspective of CIA operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan—combine advances in documentary technique with on-the-ground reporting that give them the sobering imprimatur of serious films for serious audiences contemplating the broader existential ambiguities emergent from more than a decade of fighting terrorism.

Though they contain stylistic differences, the aesthetic visions underlining The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty remain congruous. Boal and Bigelow frame the former through the lens of an unmediated, documentary naturalism.3 Furthermore, “[the script] was both a probing character study [and] a nerve-shredding combat thriller. […] It not only put one on the ground in Baghdad,” continued Bigelow, “but also, quite subtly and brilliantly, became a mediation on existential themes of life and death, courage and manhood, war and human nature.”4 Often shooting with four cameras simultaneously and with cinematography handled by veteran documentary photographer Barry Ackroyd (who also shot Paul Greengrass’ post-911 docudramas United 93 and Green Zone) facilitated what one critic dubbed “experiential action,” a mode of representation providing viewers with a privileged access to combat reality. Such ‘naturalism’ mystifies the film’s principle absence – the Bush doctrine’s ideology of preemptive strike. Evacuating a macro-analysis in favor of an on-the-ground point of view and couching the conflict within ahisortical, universalist themes (“life and death, courage and manhood, war and human nature”) concede to the administration’s own justifications for war (to spread freedom and democracy), and make the invasion appear an historical inevitability. For Bigelow and Co., Iraq simply was; thus yielding to the consensus espoused by solons in Washington that the world was ‘a better place’ with Saddam out of power, whether coalition forces uncovered weapons of mass destruction or not. The film’s purported ‘objectivity’ signals not only the inability to take a stand on the war, but an unwillingness to do so. The immersive style that strives to put audience in the picture simultaneously takes us out of it by producing so limited a view on the events we lack the opportunity to think about who dragged the country to war and why. The effect depoliticizes Iraq and the war on terror in favor of an aesthetic of ambiguity.

The aesthetic vision of Zero Dark Thirty compounds The Hurt Locker’s reduced scale. It expands the latter’s purview to encompass the war on terror as a global intelligence operation designed to vengefully capture and kill bin Laden, dismantle terror networks and stave off future attacks. Furthermore, it approaches its subject with a sobering objectivity suffused with an apolitical ambiguity that grants it the generic air of a global police procedural. The film’s opening scene features a proclamation declaring it to be “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” Zero Dark Thirty then dramatizes September 11, 2001 aurally over a black screen (a move lifted from Michael Moore’s 2004 Fahrenheit 9/11) and thus orients everything that unfolds under the scene of lower Manhattan’s destruction at the hand of Al-Qaeda. What follows are two and a half hours dedicated to the agonizing extraction of information first from a terrorist suspect (Reda Kateb), and then pouring over computers, consoles, binders, and DVDs to piece together intelligence leading to bin Laden’s capture. Terrorist attacks in Khobar, Saudia Arabia, London, England, Islamabad, Pakistan, and a thwarted explosion in Manhattan’s Times Square up the ante before culminating in bin Laden’s assassination at his fortress-compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan by Seal Team Six. As it concludes, we witness our protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain) shed an ambivalent tear.

Controversies surrounding the film’s depiction of torture are legion and center on whether Bigelow and Boal endorsed “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Speaking to the New York Film Critics Circle after receiving her award for Best Director, Bigelow defended her representation of torture: “I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices.”5 The issue was not over whether it was permissible to represent torture. Rather it was how their film’s textual warp and weft represented it. Gibney describes this representation and its dehumanizing effects as just, though criticizes claims that it led to actionable intelligence.6 Others fault Zero Dark Thirty for banalizing torture. For The Nation, “[Bigelow and Boal] do not excuse or glorify torture; they do something worse: they draw the audience into accommodating it.”7 The philosopher Slavoj Žižek frames this accommodation as using stylistic ‘neutrality’ to ‘neutralize’ torture’s intolerable moral impact and thus normalize it for everyday Americans.8 In defense, Atlantic-correspondent Mark Bowden argues that filmmakers in pursuit of an objective account of events need not structure their narratives politically because “pure storytelling is not always about making an argument, no matter how worthy. It can be simply about telling the truth. Because torture was in the mix during all of the early interrogations, it would be wrong to ignore it, and impossible to say it had no effect.”9 Yet the weighty objectivity of ‘pure storytelling’ is itself a fiction.

Given the debates outlined above, I would suggest the nature of torture’s representation, in fact, sidesteps the larger formal problems propounded by the film in its pursuit of a style Boal describes as a “hybrid of the filmic and the journalistic.”10 Bowden’s invocation of “pure” storytelling evinces a naïve idealism that mystifies an ideology of representation intent on uncritically reflecting reality to the American body politic in ways that do not appear ideological.11 The ‘apolitics’ underlining both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty become liberalism’s political gesture par excellence. The political question for filmmakers attempting films about U.S. foreign policy is not one about tactics, strategy or even filmic representation. It is and always has been: should the United States be engaged in a war on terror? If you say yes, you are for it. If you say nothing, you abdicate your social and political responsibilities and therefore authorize it with apathy, as Bigelow and Boal have done. If you say, no, you are for something and it is not this film. What that “is” remains unknown because real politics tests the limits of the possible.


David Fresko is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art & Art History at Stanford University. He is currently completing a dissertation entitled “Montage-Praxis-Politics,” which examines the relationship between French and American political filmmakers during the 1960s and 1970s. His writing has previously appeared in animation: an interdisciplinary journal.

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