Director Kathryn Bigelow's critically acclaimed dramatization of the US hunt for international terrorist mastermind of the US 9/11 attacks Osama Bin Laden (UBL for Usama Bin Laden in the film) is not only the summit of excellent film making technique and narrative, but exactly how I would have made it (if I had Bigelow's talent). Let's briefly examine the controversy then turn out attention to the dominant symbol of the film and how Bigelow incorporates that into all the sub-text dialogue: Maya (Jessica Chastain).
Like Maya, we witness Dan (Jason Clarke, another CIA operative) "torture" Ammar (Reda Kateb), a nephew of one of Bin Laden's inner-circle, in order to get an email address from him; after we--and Maya--have thoroughly witnessed how Dan treats Ammar like an animal to get him to communicate information that will save lives of people all over the world, Dan strips off Ammar's pants (covered in his own feces) and leaves him naked with Maya; Ammar begs Maya to make Dan stop and Maya tells him, you are bringing this on yourself in not telling us the truth. Later, Maya herself uses physical beatings in coaxing information from detainees and, one detainee who was a banker tells her that he has all ready been tortured and will tell her whatever she wants to know.
So, based on this, is ZDT pro-torture?
|This is Dan (Jason Clarke) and of course, the name "Dan" is short for "Daniel" which in Hebrew means "God is my judge," also translated as "Judgment of God." In this particular scene, Dan has placed detainee Ammar in the box," rather like what happens to Alec Guinness' character in Bridge On the River Kwai, so we recognize this as torture (more on this just below). What is interesting about Dan is (symbolically or poetically speaking) why he has to leave the CIA site and "hand-off" to Maya (he doesn't "have to leave" but as a character with a purpose in a narrative, he has to leave in order to convey the moral point the film makers want). There is a little scene with Dan feeding ice cream to two monkeys in a cage at the CIA Black Site where he has been working with detainees. He encourages the monkeys to take a bit of ice cream each, then one of them takes the whole cone away. What does this mean? It's clear that Dan treats the detainees like animals (more on this below) and the monkeys symbolize the detainees because of Dan's methods; the monkeys taking the ice cream formulates for the viewer how treating and torturing the detainees has "robbed" Dan of his "sweetness" (the ice cream) without him intending it. In other words, Dan was willing to "give" some of his sweetness/humanity to treating the detainees like animals--because our actions define us so what he has done to others has made him what he is--but without Dan intending it to happen, all his sweetness was stolen just as he stole all the humanity from the detainees. Furthermore, during the opening torture scene, the song being played is "Pavlov's Dogs," linking to the experiment of classical conditioning: "When you lie to me, I hurt you," Dan tells Ammar, not just teaching Ammar that "golden rule" but also conditioning Dan that when Ammar lies, I have to hurt him or the building up of the conditioning is all undone. The monkeys are the opposite of Maya's canaries (what the SEALS are called in the film) because Dan's monkeys die (symbolic of his work with the detainees) whereas Maya's canaries (the Navy SEALS) live and complete the mission. This symbolic balance Bigelow presents is imperative in understanding the moral and political agenda of the film as a commentary on the last ten years of American history.|
|The way the film substantiates this position is in the mask Dan puts on Ammar when pouring water down his mouth (waterboarding). In art, masks to not conceal but reveal, so if someone wears a mask something about them is being revealed in that instance and the mask alerts us to take note of the character's deeper presence in the narrative. Ammar's face is blacked out (erased, just like the words on the black and white poster for the film) by the black mask and like the fully clothed black figures in the film: he has no identity. It's not just Jihadists who have their identity blocked out, and this is discussed just below. Dan rather represents the idea of American "brass knuckle tactics" we saw in Lawless and Expendables 2 and, wanting to distance the manhunt from that accusatory position that America is just a bully, Bigelow distances Dan from the manhunt by removing him to Washington. ZDT follows the same Jaws, which was a validation of American justice in bombing Hiroshima during World War II (for more, please see Jaws & the Cleansing Of America). Like Spielberg in Jaws, Bigelow in ZDT takes great pains at establishing all the crimes and how the punishment aptly fits.|
I know exactly what you are thinking,...
|This is a clip from The Debt with Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Jessica Chastain (far left); in this film, Chastain plays a young Israeli intelligence agent assigned to capture a Nazi doctor from the Holocaust so he can be brought to justice. Why bring this up? Besides Chastain playing intelligence officers in both films, Bigelow visually sites The Debt in the closing of ZDT with shots at the end of the film summoning this very image (this is known as reader response, when the audience recognizes something the art referencing something outside itself to extend the realm of engagement and those recognizing the end shots of ZDT are the implied readers because the film makers speak directly to them). Why make this connection? Two reasons, at least. First, it compares Osama Bin Laden--lest anyone be in doubt--to the Nazi doctor (because both are the villains she brings to justice in both films) and the cruelty he waged upon innocent men and women, which means Bigelow correlates 9/11 to the Holocaust, and justly so because both the Nazis and Jihadists had nothing but the extermination of innocent people in their plot. Because of this, we come to the second reason, which is, the loss of identity. Murdering someone means you murder yourself, which is demonstrated in the film by a loss of identity (as discussed above, in the case of the black mask being put over Ammer's face because, by withholding information, he was still contributing to the murdering of people so he was also killing himself). There are two times the film demonstrates this thesis. First, when Maya interrogates the Jihadist banker, because torture has made him value his own dignity and humanity, he now willingly offers what he knows and thereby regains his humanity and looks human, instead of Ammer looking like a beat-up dog because all people are dogs to him to be killed (until Maya and Dan trick him, then he regains his humanity as well). For example, Dan tells Ammer that when Ammer gives him the email address he wants, he will give Ammer a "blanket and some solid food," because when Ammer gives Dan that address, Ammer will be showing compassion for other people and be worthy of compassion himself, instead of treating other people like dogs, and thereby be worthy of being treated like a dog himself. But the exact opposite is true, as well, and that is seen in the SEAL who actually kills UBL. The film doesn't pay attention to him until after UBL is dead and Patrick (Joel Edgerton) turns to him and recognizes what he did and how the world will want to know about it. So, murdering-with-a-just cause, in this case, manifests humanity and dignity because of the sacrifice that SEAL willingly made and his expertise in carrying out his duty for his country (for more, please see The Debt & the Theory Of Chaos).|
|This was the first poster released for ZDT, making the philosophy of "erasure" the primary means of our first introduction to the story. Why? Sous rature, or "erasure" is a practice more than a philosophy or idea, where we are forced to use a word of concept in spite of how inadequate it is: for example, "being" doesn't really describe what it is like to live, it fails to invoke the soul, it doesn't account for our relationships, etc., but there are times when we still have to employ the term regardless of what "being" lacks in its ability to communicate; when a writer wants to place a concept under "erasure" then, they write the word, "Osama Bin Laden" (for example) and then make a thin but definite line through the word(s) (so it looks just like the phrase Zero Dark Thirty above in the poster) so anyone reading that word(s) will know the name of the man, in this example, doesn't begin to convey the full-meaning of what his identity means to Americans. Osama Bin Laden doesn't convey the thousands of people suddenly killed on 9/11, the violence and insanity of airplanes being used to wreck into the buildings, the pain of hearing phone calls from the dying, the first-responders who died and suffered, etc. Placing UBL under erasure works well in ZDT because, in effect, so does Bigelow: we don't see UBL's face, we only see that long, greying beard with the white streak going down one side (more on the use of beards below) What does "Zero Dark Thirty" mean? It's the military's time for half-past midnight, when the SEALS entered the UBL compound; so, seeing "zero dark thirty" under erasure, we can deduce Bigelow's desire to invoke a far greater concept than the words indicating a mere time-span achieves because of the final closure being attained in this act, the crossing of the threshold of justice and faith shown in Maya's tracking, among many other ideas and emotions. Seeing Maya in the poster at the very top of the post (the one where Zero Dark Thirty is written over her as she wears black shirt and sunglasses) that Maya's identity is under erasure like Will in The Cold Light Of Day, because she has to emerge from her nothingness (UBL is the only thing she has ever done we discover) like the SEAL shooter of UBL towards the end of the film.(for more on erasure, please see Without Baggage: Erasure & Identity In The Cold Light Of Day). But if Maya symbolizes America, then America, too, is under erasure, and we have to decide exactly what that means and what it leaves out.|
|Maya, as mentioned, is on her first assignment, and Dan asks if she's too young to be on this assignment, to which Joseph Bradley (the Chief) responds that Washington (Bush Administration at this point in the film) wants to have a "Children's Crusade." What is that about? The Children's Crusade was an actual religious crusade by European Catholics to take over the Holy Land from the Muslims in around 1212 (there were several crusades); so, we can say, in this phrase, Bigelow formally recognizes the history of conflict between Muslims and the West but there is at least one additional reason fro this phrase being employed. As we have seen discussed n Expendables 2, Red Dawn, The Cold Light Of Day and will see in A Good Day To Die Hard (Bruce Willis, February), there is concern being expressed in films over whether or not younger generations (Generation X and Y) are not morally and psychologically up to the tasks of carrying the torch of freedom as Baby Boomers have done since World War II; ZDT shows the world Maya and her determination and offers that as its answer of the future of Americans continuing the "Children's Crusade" (the younger generations) for American Justice in the world.|
Generally, we know Maya symbolizes America because she is female (the passive element as opposed to the active element of the male which would symbolize the economy) and she is of child-bearing age (so she symbolizes the future consequences of the now because she will "give birth" to something, more on this below). Maya symbolizes America because generally this is true of women in art, however, she also symbolizes America because of her characteristics: her determination to kill UBL embodies the nation's drive to justice. There are several instances of this in the film.
UBL is the first assignment Maya has ever had, so how can she be said to be a "killer?" We know Bigelow, and given all the "instability" of the narrative (the illusions and "erased"meanings) when examining what "killer" means, we can ascertain a number of possibilities, rather like in Bigelow's first blockbuster The Hurt Locker and instability in understanding the opening declaration "War is a drug" (please see Whore Houses & Soccer Stars: The Hurt Locker for more). Sure, Maya tells the SEALS, "I want you to kill Bin Laden for me," but there are a lot of different types of killing going on: Maya has to kill the doubts surrounding her thesis of where UBL is; she has to kill what is weak within herself; she has to kill resistance her chiefs have to her demands for continuing the hunt for UBL as well as detainees' resistance to helping her and, above all, she has to kill her ignorance of where UBL is. These are just some examples (again, we see this same kind of "instability" in The Hurt Locker with the words "war" and "drugs").
|Maya arguing with Brady about continuing importance of UBL.|
Before 9/11, American confidence was a guarantee that a task would get done, that America could rebound from anything and we would always triumph (American confidence is undermined in the character of Forrest Bondurant [Tom Hardy] in another Chastain film, Lawless; please see Lawless & Brass Knuckle Tactics for more); when the meeting discusses the probability of UBL being where Maya says, none of them will go over 60% chances, except Maya: "It's 100%" that he's there, she says. "I know you don't like certainty," and why not? Because in the Obama Administration, "confidence" has become taboo, and the proof of this is the reason why Bigelow wasn't nominated for the Oscar for Best Director: although President Obama took personal glory for killing Osama Bin Laden, Bigelow doesn't even have anyone calling him.
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