The pedigreed filmmakers behind "Zero Dark Thirty" are denying the claims that their film supports torture, saying essentially that their film merely depicts torture as it's an important part of the story. So they only show it, but do not support it. This goes to the old Hollywood defensive tactic with regards to making violent films -- we only show increasingly more realistic and gruesome violence in very creative ways, but we do not condone it. We also like to have your cake and eat it too.
According to their explanation, the filmmakers tried to make a film that is not an Obama commercial and not an apology for torture. That's a noble goal perhaps, but the result is a disjointed film. As Mark Boal says, his film is being "misread", presumably because it chose to show the issue in its complexity. Evoking complexity is not always an artistic virtue. Some times the fact that you don't know what the lead character of a film is feeling with regards to the portrayed events is just lack courage on the part of the film's creators to take a stand. Especially on an issue like this one, that's central to the story. As the debate gathers steam, it's obvious that there can be no half-measure emotions about torture. Either way.
I think the reason the filmmakers are facing the brewing firestorm of opinions over what their film does and does not say is exactly that -- failed filmmaking and gutless lack of principle in trying to show an important, highly politicized part of our history, without taking any clear stand on the issue. At least it's not clear what is the position of the writers and director or the meaning of the indecipherable and amazingly overhyped performance by Jessica Chastain, who seems to fluctuate in the film between being an aloof nerd, an overcompensating woman trying to make it in a male-dominated profession or simply an obsessed clerk looking to move up. It's not clear what is driving her and why she wants to kill Osama so badly. Somehow it doesn't feel like patriotism. I find this the film's greatest failure and the reason for the backlash. The filmmakers could have chosen to include her character's backstory and emotional connection to Osama bin Laden and chose not to do it. They used her as a proxy to show the workings of the CIA. And apparently did so untruthfully despite the statement that begins the film, saying that it's based on interviews with people about actual events, cloaking the whole thing with an air of veracity.
I didn't know what the filmmakers were trying to say with this film and as such, by default, the only idea I took out of the screening was that torture works. And torture was the main reason we caught Bin Laden. There is no other conclusion to draw from a narrative which focuses on torture for long periods of time and where the real break in getting to Bin Laden clearly comes from information obtained due to torture. I don't know whether that's how things really happened, and there's been enough evidence that torture does not really work effectively, as well as statements from the CIA and Defense Department denying that torture-obtained intelligence was crucial to capturing the world's most infamous terrorist. Out of all of this, the filmmakers are getting the brunt of the criticism and the government actually comes out sounding like the good guy who does not condone torture! It's safe to assume it's not telling us the whole truth either. But as far as this particular film is concerned, Zero Dark Thirty is clearly informing us that torture led to the capture of Bin Laden.
I think all of us, reasonable human beings, assume that reality is complex and some times unseemly things happen about which we don't really want to know more about since they support our way of life. And it's not reasonable to expect a film to change anything in "reality" even though some times films can capture zeitgeists and focus attention on issues and actually lead to some actual effects. But no matter what is the reach of your film, it's important to recognize that making films is a responsibility. Any decision you make when you create a film affects a product that is seen by many members of your society and in Hollywood's case -- millions of people. These are high stakes and every filmmaking action is a significant choice. From selecting the lens to writing a supporting character's speech. And when you make a film with political implications, every decision you make is even more obviously political. It's naive not to realize that. Even if you try hard not to take a stand like the filmmakers tried desperately to do, you are still making a political statement even in such cowardice and a stand will be taken for you.
As the brouhaha intensifies, and we get people in the uber-liberal Hollywood presumably shocked to find themselves accused of supporting a position that is anathema to them, it's hard not to look at all this also as a cynical campaign for viewers and Oscars. The debate raises the cultural significance of this film and the hopes for all involved to ride this synthesis of moral failure and often thrilling technical execution to more Academy Awards glory. Let's hope somebody somewhere down this line takes a stand.
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