Anyone who’s used the words “Leni Riefenstahl” unironically to describe Kathryn Bigelow and her latest film, Zero Dark Thirty, needs to get a handle on themselves and a sense of proportion (and if they ever saw even an episode of 24, chances are that their frontal lobes would explode into mush). Seriously, if Zero Dark Thirty is supposed to be pro-torture propaganda, it is extremely inept at furthering a pro-torture agenda – and being inept at her craft is about the last thing you could criticise Bigelow for.
No, the problem with Zero Dark Thirty isn’t that it espouses problematic opinions – it’s that the film hardly has any opinion at all. It effaces practically every trace of an ideological or political position from its story, becoming one big Rorschach test in the process. Depending on one’s own view of the issues – the war on terrorism, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, the use of torture – it’s easy to read any set of diametrically opposed intentions into the film. The same scenes can serve as evidence, with a bit of prodding and tweaking, that Bigelow approves of torture and that she sees it as a dehumanising evil, but without the outside input of the viewer’s opinions the movie does not forward any statement beyond “And then this happened.”
I don’t particularly want to get into the quagmire of What Really Happened. I accept that this is a fictionalised version of the events, added to which I doubt there’s an unadulterated, unbiased, and most importantly unredacted version of what happened that Bigelow – or anyone, really – had access to. My issue with the film isn’t its political position but its blankness, which makes it difficult to engage with the film. I like cinema to be ambiguous, I enjoy making up my own mind and thinking for myself, so it’s not that I wanted Zero Dark Thirty to tell me how to feel about what was happening – but the film, its events and its characters are such blank slates that there isn’t even much there to engage with. There is a distinction between even-handedness and utter neutrality, and Switzerland could learn one or two (or two-hundred) things from Bigelow’s latest.
As a result, I found myself thinking and feeling relatively little about what was happening on the screen, beyond “Yeah, this – or something like it – did probably happen at some point.” Shouldn’t the events on screen carry some dramatic weight? The main adjective describing Zero Dark Thirty for me is this: professional. The film is well directed, shot, acted, edited; there is little to fault (except one clumsily manipulative scene that makes the characters involved look stupid) except its blankness. If anything, perhaps its very basic plotting can be criticised – a mere string of events reminiscent of a schoolchild’s essay on “What I did on my hols hunting for Bin Laden” – or its pedestrian characterisation, but both of these reflect what seems to be Bigelow’s intention, not to impose anything on the audience. But, Ms Bigelow, imposing on the audience and giving them something, anything, to work with, those are two very different things. Should I come away from a film on this topic feeling faintly impressed by the craft, faintly bored by the sheer length of the movie, but mostly just blank?