Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

Given the firestorm of controversy centered around Zero Dark Thirty, it seems worthwhile to comment on certain critical breakthroughs achieved in the surrounding discussion before reviewing the film at a later date.

Until now, there has never been a film in which an audience can find whatever movie they would like to find. That has been the exclusive skill of Hollywood advertisers, whose trailers and TV spots are impeccable at finding seemingly impossible interpretations of a film’s content: a low-key arthouse drama like Drive became a Fast and the Fury-esque joyride, and a gruelling natural horror flick like The Grey was made over into a wolf-Neeson boxing match. Luckily, their tastes in interpretation just happen to match up to a financially favourable slate of demographics, who are in turn persuaded to go watch the movie of their accountant-determined dreams.

Unfortunately for those of us who do, we don’t share those marketers’ mastery of forced perception. Instead of the wolf-Neeson five-on-one we hoped to see, most of us can’t see The Grey as anything but really slow, and boring, and kind of depressing. Even if we squint.

Luckily, the key to this technique has been discovered by the CIA who, I heard somewhere, funded and dictated the content of Zero Dark Thirty for propagandistic reasons, or didn’t. Depends on my mood. Anyway, they have (or haven't) funded a chilly, complex, morally challenging political procedural that would ordinarily come under fire for inscrutability, but has instead proved the most scrutable film ever made.

What I mean is that Zero Dark Thirty — respectively directed and written by Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal — seems to be be the first film in cinema history for which any interpretation is completely valid and supported by the film. Any at all. Indeed, the release and discourse around Zero Dark Thirty have produced a dizzying array of interpretations by critics.

The first critic to recognize this quality in the film was The Guardian’s Glenn Greewald, who admitted he hadn’t seen the film and was therefore “obviously not purporting to review it” in a Dec. 10 article titled “New torture-glorifying film wins raves”. To justify a headline that, to a layman, would seem to require at least one viewing of the film in question, all Greenwald had to do was read advance reviews of the film and ignore any that did not support his own narrative. He thus concluded that the film “glorifies torture by claiming — falsely — that waterboarding and other forms of coercive interrogation tactics were crucial, even indispensable in finding bin Laden.”

Had Greenwald waited three more days after his original article’s publication, he may have ignored a Salon review by Andrew O’Hehir. In it, O’Hehir makes a convincing argument to the contrary based on a careful and nuanced reading of the film. His conclusion: the film “absolutely does not imply that torture interrogations led directly to the shadowy bin Laden contact.”

Had sober analysis like this prevailed unchecked, the true merits of Zero Dark Thirty as a Swiss army knife of political agendas may have gone unnoticed, as audiences and critics at large instead discovered a dark, complicated allegory for the amorality of America’s post-9/11 revenge quests.

A few days after his first column, Greenwald did watch the film, and decided that it wasn’t just bad, irresponsible, or morally disagreeable art — it was, in fact, not art at all. “To demand that this movie be treated as ‘art’ is to expand that term beyond any real recognition,” said Greenwald. “The brave crusaders slay the Evil Villains, and everyone cheers.”

Lo and behold, it was precisely the movie that he had decided in advance it would be. The master had proven himself. Wonders to perform.

This confirmed a revolutionary achievement: no matter what may actually be on the screen, Zero Dark Thirty is the first film for which the adage “you get out of it what you take into it” is a total, literal truth and 
the correct critical framework to approach the film with.

O’Hehir certainly recognized it: weeks after his review, he followed Greenwald’s lead by confirming that when people watch Zero Dark Thirty, they each watch wholly different films, and that as far as any torture debate goes, “both interpretations can be simultaneously correct.” It takes a smart man to systematically argue a political point; it takes a brave one to later sense a critical backlash and amend that “there’s probably no bridging the perceptual gap on that question.”

The open floodgates have led to a deluge of positive and negative reviews for an ever-more-impressive diversity of Zero Dark Thirty films. As Lou Lumenick wrote for The New York Post, “Bigelow has made an essentially nonpolitical film... she and Boal leave audiences to decide for themselves whether torture was necessary to stop al Qaeda.” Lumenick chose to see a feminism-in-the-workplace narrative, admiringly describing the obsessive, friend-shirking protagonist Maya as “a consummate professional who brilliantly performs her job in an often hostile work environment.” Osama Bin Laden and American foreign policy figure incidentally.

In a Greenwald-approved article, Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast responded to the film’s opening sequence of “Real-life voices of people in great distress or about to die. According to reports. I haven't seen the film, so maybe it's handled well, but that decisions seems to make to make the film automatically and definitionally [sic] a work of propaganda.” 
Tomasky didn't need to explain exactly what automation makes propaganda of real-world distress calls; he was, after all, obviously not purporting to review the film.

Yasmin Hussein, a Muslim activist writing for The Huffington Post, didn’t watch the movie at all before deciding that it portrays Muslims in an unfairly villainous light. Hussein didn't have not a single quote or other shred of evidence as the basis for her ZDT script, but she didn't need one, and there is no bridging that perceptual gap.

Some have complained that Zero Dark Thirty makes it too hard to lose all grasp on reality. Maryann Johanson, whose version of the film makes “too little... of the impact witnessing the torture,” bemoans that the film’s basis in an objective reality is an impediment to convenience. “If only this were a wholly fictional story, with none of the baggage of real life weighing it down, I could probably get behind it 100 percent, instead of the ‘mere’ 95 percent I can give,” says Johanson, who only asks that torture apologism be fully fictional before giving it a perfect score.

Rick Kisonak of Vermont’s Seven Days 
also would rather not have to think about the bad things that he already knows about real life. “We hardly needed a Hollywood procedural... to inform us that America took the moral gloves off in the aftermath of 9/11,” writes Kisonak, arguing that Zero Dark Thirty therefore cannot have an anti-torture position. It is either pro-torture, or just shows torture because it “made for a better story.” Kisonak finishes his logical tour de force by dismissing the former possibility, because “That seems unlikely.”

We can only imagine how far the criticism of the film will go in the course of time. Perhaps someday we can perceive our own lives as whatever we wish, and hallucinate visions of wealth and sexual power at length. No one could say we’d be wrong to do it: the widespread discursive approach to Zero Dark Thirty allows us to take credit for whatever moral or intellectual high ground we so wish. If someone should refute that credit, we can always have a ready-made counter-argument to damn the last one, no matter what version of reality it may be based in.


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