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How Zero Dark Thirty's Unflinching Objectivity Opens the Film Up to Simplistic Accusations of Ideological Partisanship

12/11/2012 02:23 pm ET | Updated Feb 10, 2013

Spoiler warning, I suppose...

There is going to be a lot of debate over the next few months about just where on the political divide Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty happens to sit.  I argued in my review that it merely looks at what happened and what was done without explicitly endorsing or condemning it.  But in our somewhat simplistic media age, impartiality can be seen as being politically partial, depending on what your film happens to contain.  I've written about this before, back when The Green Zone came out (read it HERE).  Just because a film is about evil corporations who kill people doesn't mean it's intended as liberal propaganda and just because a pregnant woman chooses to not have an abortion doesn't mean it's an anti-choice screed.  I'd argue part of the point of Zero Dark Thirty is that non-fiction rarely falls into specific political or ideological dogmas.  At a glance, the film shows brutal torture ordered by Republican President Bush eliciting information that allowed for Democratic President Obama to order a mass killing by US troops in a sovereign country with only a token belief that the people about to be gunned down were the intended targets.  The film dares to neither explicitly condemn the torture nor remotely take joy in the climactic execution, presenting both events as morally reprehensible even if perhaps necessary to the proverbial 'greater good'.  According to the film, torture may well have worked (although the film certainly acknowledges that the carrot may work better than the stick) and we certainly 'got' Bin Laden, but we damn well should take a moment to inquire at what cost.

Real life doesn't follow ideological lines.  Regardless of where you stand on torture (nay) or the execution of Bin Laden (eh...), Bigelow's film is apolitical in the best sense of the word.  I liked The Hurt Locker quite a bit when it came out in 2009, but I was forever annoyed at how everyone championed its 'apolitical' nature, as if not taking sides in a fictional story set in a real-world environment was automatically a good thing.  For all my fuss over Spielberg's choice to hold off releasing Lincoln until just after the election (obviously the right choice in hindsight), the film doesn't sit on the political sidelines, but rather tells a progressively-minded story which condemns those on the wrong side of history while gently ribbing those on the right side who threatened progress via ideological purity.  Zero Dark Thirty is apolitical in a different and almost courageous sense, presenting incident and imagery destined to be dissected for political intentions but refusing to offer commentary or any explicit declarations.  Like all or at least most of Kathryn Bigelow's prior pictures, Zero Dark Thirty presents all violence as inherently abhorrent and a moral failure regardless of who drew first blood.  We can choose to accept the film's case that torture was at least useful in bringing down Bin Laden while still rejecting its use on moral and practical grounds. And we can turn away in disgust at what went down in Pakistan while still acknowledging what arguably had to be done (although how grand would it have been to catch Bin Laden alive and put him on trial in New York City?).

Bigelow and Mark Boal don't pander by including characters explaining why torture doesn't always work nor does it include a squeaky-clean Seal raid sans collateral damage with overly empathetic Navy Seals.  Just as the film doesn't contain moments where Jessica Chastain 'explains' her character and/or her character arc, nor does the film offer comforting explanation of its subject matter in a way that will appeal to one political side or another.  The film is a time capsule piece, existing merely to show what occurred during a morally messy moment in history and allowing the audience to decide how they feel about it.  It treats us like adults, so I only ask in the months to follow that we discuss it like adults in turn.  The film is no more a Right-Wing screed because it doesn't condemn torture anymore than it's anti-war propaganda because the Bin Laden raid doesn't go down like a deleted scene from Act of Valor.  Zero Dark Thirty is a morally complicated film about a morally complicated time, presented with a minimum of contextual explanation or justification.  To read it purely on the simplest level in order to justify an outraged editorial does the film and the medium of adult film-making a genuine disservice.

It is not an editorial, but (as best as it can be) an ideologically objective documentation of specific events.  It is an acknowledgment that reality often falls well outside any and all respective political dogmas.  Zero Dark Thirty is one of the best films of the year partially because it is unafraid of potentially being embraced by those political factions its filmmakers may disagree with. Its only bias is to history.  

Scott Mendelson