Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s follow up to her 2008 Oscar-bait The Hurt Locker, has attracted a mixture of flak and acclaim since its premiere last month. Unsurprisingly, but nonetheless disappointingly to this writer, the film has received a grand total of five Academy Award nominations. Does it deserve such accolade artistically? Many believe so. And this would be worth accounting for were it not for its malicious overtones and Bigelow’s churlish attempt at rewriting history.
For the most part the media diatribe has focused on accusations of sadism, fetishism, and an overly apologetic position on the use and efficacy of torture. More positive reviews have waxed lyrical about Bigelow’s beatific and detailed, documentary-like direction, whilst tending to ignore or overlook the troubling ideological narratives and the moral-ethical quandaries. This is probably because it encompasses a certain, uncompromising world-view that such benefactors subscribe to.
There is, and has been, a great deal said of the film’s delineation of torture, of course. Most controversial of all is the questionable (to say the least) decision to imbricate a discourse of causality leading from the seemingly endless water boarding and humiliation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the eventual discovery and assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Considering there is no hard evidence to suggest that the intelligence extracted from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed actually led directly to this outcome, nor indeed that torture is a particularly reliable methodology per se (an assertion supported by one John McCain), this is a bold and dangerous allusion.
Bigelow’s response to censure has been at once evasive and rhetorical. In her initial counter she feigned sweet ignorance and seemed hurt and confused that she was being accused of peddling misinformation, all the while enjoying the inevitable and well-calculated publicity of controversy.
In an article written by Bigelow for the Los Angeles Times, however, she seems to have adopted a rather different and more vocal guard. Bigelow said her accusers were "shooting the messenger," cleverly turning the tables by making detractors look like thought-police and simultaneously painting herself as a misunderstood champion of artistic freedom of expression, courageous enough to "deal with these issues." The genius of this is how it circumvents the genuine concerns of serious critics, shunning discussion of historical re-contextualisation and distortion, whilst making them seem like squeamish morons who are so obtuse they cannot differentiate between "depiction" and "endorsement."
The Academy Awards, which is after all an American institution, have arguably taken a subjective step in extolling Zero Dark Thirty, which is a political film in form as well as content. When stripped to its bones, for me the movie was at best an overlong, emotionless and mundane portrait of what was ultimately a hollow triumph, feebly supported by mediocre performances.
Ultimately, Bigelow’s latest is an unsubtle and vicious work of torturous political half-truths, however slick it may be, that left me ailing, and all the more suspicious of Hollywood’s idea architects. It would not be defensible for Kathryn to seek solace in the proverbial mountain cave of creative licence, because the concept of such licence is incompatible with the claim to journalistic objectivity the film loosely boasts from its outset. This is a nasty piece of pulp that is reminiscent of the darker history of motion picture as the propaganda arm of the hegemon.