David finally convinced me to see Zero Dark Thirty, a movie I avoided because in general I have a low tolerance for violent movies (insomnia, nightmares). Now, having seen it, I have a theory of why there were so many complaints and objections.
Some critics claim the film is an inaccurate depiction of how the CIA, by using torture, got crucial evidence in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden. The complainers say that the CIA did not gain this intelligence as a result of using torture. Therefore, any depiction of waterboarding would mislead viewers. Does the movie raise a means-and-ends question, with torture the questionable means toward a justified ends? It’s an arguable point, but condemning the film for this reason implies a standard of political correctness by which a great many movies people cherish would fall to the wayside. Moreover, that’s not really what fuss is about.
Here’s my theory and I’m curious to know what others think: Complaints against ZDT are coded misogyny – a protest against the idea that a woman might be a CIA agent, doing a manly man’s job, with a soldier’s stoicism and fortitude in a movie directed by a woman. Maya happens to be beautiful – it’s a movie, after all – but the work she and colleagues do is as far removed as can be from the activities of acceptable feminist models, such as virtuous moms who oppose drunk driving, brainy attorneys who put up with philandering husbands, and courageous whistle blowers. Furthermore, war movies are the provenance of male directors. One such movie (Hurt Locker) is fine, but two? It’s time to go home Ms. Bigelow and make Something’s Gotta Give.
Some have gone so far as to say that Zero Dark Thirty is an advertisement for the use of torture. As proof, they point to the demeanor of Maya, the CIA agent responsible for piecing together the evidence that led to Bin Laden’s hiding place. She is, say the critics, not sufficiently undone by the scenes of torture. Did I see a different movie? Maya is repelled by what she sees. She flinches, backs away, crosses her arms in front of her body, and after one session runs to the bathroom to collect herself. What would it take for the audience to believe that she is discomfited by the torture? I know! She should have become hysterical. That is the expected reaction of a woman who is upset. Instead, she behaves like the trained CIA professional she is and uses her will to maintain her composure.
In time Maya appears to grow comfortable with “enhanced interrogation” techniques. Yet Katherine Bigelow is careful to show the psychic consequences for the interrogators. Maya’s senior colleague grows weary and has to quit to “do something normal.” But people who think this is story about torture miss the boat.
Zero Dark Thirty is a serious, gripping, and masterly telling of the long and difficult quest for a mass murderer in hiding. There is violence, but I’ve seen much worse. The only violence that I found disturbing happens at the very beginning of the movie, when over a dark screen we hear the panicked 911 calls of the people trapped in the World Trade Center on 9/11. They still haunt me.