3:53 p.m. January 14, 2013

Does Torture Work? Zero Dark Thirty Says "YesWellMaybe?DefinitelyCouldBeUnlessNot?"

Lotta controversy surrounding the movie Zero Dark Thirty, as was indicated at the Golden Globe Awards last night. First in relation to its depiction of torture: Globe emcee Amy Poehler argued that director Kathryn Bigelow could be relied on to convey its horrors accurately because “when it comes to torture, I trust the lady who spent three years married to James Cameron.” But others aren’t so sure.

Then there’s the gender issue that keeps cropping up. Some of it’s about whether Bret Easton Ellis is a total irredeemable shithead for saying director Kathryn Bigelow gets more attention than her films really merit because she’s a good-looking woman. This is an easy one, because Bret Easton Ellis IS an irredeemable shithead and therefore can’t be right about anything.

But then Jessica Chastain, who won Best Actress for her performance in Zero Dark Thirty, said in her acceptance speech that Kathryn Bigelow was doing more for her gender than she knew when she went against Hollywood conventions in order to “realistically” depict a strong, capable woman standing up for herself. Since that’s a seriously insane statement, we have to table that one for a minute in order to stop hooting with laughter and recover our composure.

Re: the torture issue — the controversy basically deals with the question of whether Zero Dark Thirty indicates torture is effective in getting reliable info out of people, and therefore “endorses” it. The movie’s brave, straightforward answer to this is: YesWellMaybe? DefinitelyCouldBeUnlessNot?

This wobbly stance is very much in keeping with the modus operandi of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who’ve been on the PR circuit tap-dancing up a storm about the film’s status as fictional entertainment or non-fictional “living history” or some swimmy uncategorizable species in between.

As Andrew Serwer of Mother Jones puts it:

Bigelow and Boal, a former journalist for Rolling Stone, have marketed Zero Dark Thirty as quasi-journalism—more than just a film. They reported, they researched….But when challenged about its accuracy or the liberties they've taken, their response is hey, it's just a movie.

Compare the gutless Zero Dark Thirty pussyfooting around to a film like, say, the superlative Battle of Algiers, which is unequivocal about its documentary status and its stand on torture. According to what we’re shown in this 1966 recreation of a key interlude in the Algerian guerilla war against French colonial rule, torture is vile and depraved — and torture works. Absolutely. Given that, it should come as no surprise that Battle of Algiers was screened at the Pentagon in 2003 during the occupation of Iraq, as a counter-insurgency tutorial.

Of course, various contemporary interrogation experts plus the US Army Field Manual disagree with this Battle of Algiers torture-provides-reliable-info stance—but at least it’s a stance. Zero Dark Thirty keeps insisting on the centrality of torture to the whole Get Bin Laden operation, while airbrushing in moments of reasonable doubt that seem to be there to help establish plausible deniability in case of too much harsh criticism of the film and the filmmakers. Sure, the torture scenes that take up the first forty-five minutes of the film wind up producing the sliver of info about a mysterious courier that eventually leads Our Heroes to Osama Bin Laden. But on the other hand, it’s such a tenuous lead nobody in the CIA thinks there’s anything reliable about that needle in the torture-derived haystack.

Only the film’s star, Jessica Chastain, has an uncanny sense of the courier info as vital, and she spends the rest of a hideously long movie overriding everyone else’s reasonable objections as she pursues what amounts to a wild hunch. Like so many Hollywood protagonists, she turns out to be magically right about everything. and like so many action-adventure narratives, the whole operation’s an amazing, unrepeatable fluke.

On the other hand—how many hands is that now?—there’s no question that the CIA characters in the film think torture works: “Sooner or later everybody breaks—it’s biology, bro!” They lament the Obama ban that supposedly puts an end to their favorite means of attaining info.

Some Say that’s okay, because we’re not supposed to like the three main CIA agents played by lead actors Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Ehle, and Jason Clarke, especially not when they’re waterboarding people, so no harm done to susceptible audiences who believe what likeable characters tell them.

But then, Some Say a lot of crazy shit.

The movie was built to function with a CIA protagonist plus two sidekicks who are there to be identified with — and by and large, the Hollywood system of movie-making works. (Unlike torture, MaybeMaybeNotPossibly?) That is, for the purposes of enjoying a movie that hasn’t actively repulsed you from the start and caused you to opt out and start mocking it, you align yourself emotionally with the protagonist(s) and against the antagonist(s) in order to get the full effect of the suspense or the laughs or whatever. That’s how it operates.

Enjoying Zero Dark Thirty is even more protagonist-dependent than most Hollywood films, it seemed to me. Everything depends on whether you’d like to see a movie in which pretty Jessica Chastain almost single-handedly brings down Osama Bin Laden. And admittedly, a lot of Americans like this kind of thing, always have.

In the 1940s vast audiences were going to the movies to watch Ginger Rogers battle the Nazis, with the whole experience of espionage and torture and violence and war filtered thought the reactions of a Hollywood cutie who’s always standing in flattering light while registering distress.

War is hell on the hairdo, and Chastain has a doozy, the most carefully coiffed red locks I’ve seen since Rita Hayworth used to toss hers around. They start off as long coppery curls as perfect as in a L’oreal hair-color ad, and then get more fetchingly windblown as bombs go off around her and military helicopters come and go. The very last helicopter is the Seal Team Six one that brings Bin Laden’s body back to the base, and the entire US military awaits Chastain’s “visual recognition” of the Al Qaeda leader. She goes and unzips the body bag and peeks shyly in at him and nods, and that’s good enough for everybody. Call the President! We got him! (If this was anything like the actual process of verifying Bin Laden’s death, no wonder conspiracy theorists aren’t convinced.)

1940s audiences probably enjoyed Ginger Rogers vs. the Nazis more than Jessica Chastain vs. Al Qaeda, though, because Chastain drags with her a huge load of ponderous build-up about her supposedly amazing acting gifts recently showcased in The Help and Tree of Life and, no doubt, Madagascar 3. Chastain is a frail, pale creature with white skin so thin you can see the veins working underneath, and a perpetually open mouth as generally seen in goldfish, blow-up dolls, and Hollywood starlets. I imagine there was probably someone on the film assigned to monitor Chastain’s mouth continuity, and to remind her to keep it open even in dust storms.

What I’m trying to indicate in my subtle way is that I don’t like Jessica Chastain, and she’s being “showcased” here, given the big star treatment. Jessica Chastain is my new least favorite female actor, after Bryce Dallas Howard, another pale twitchy redhead with pernicious acting-class tendencies. The idea of Chastain as a “killer” CIA agent, or a killer anything—Lordy, has nobody ever met a formidable female in this brave new world? They’re everywhere, and they will freeze you in your tracks and make you long for invisibility, not eager to go up to them and say “Oh my God, I just LOVE your hair! Who’s your stylist? Hey, you better get out of the sun, you look like you’re about to faint.”

Chastain is so ludicrous here that the point of casting her in this role seems to be to demonstrate to the rest of us that Zero Dark Thirty is absolutely, positively "just a movie." And not a good one, either. It’s one of the hammiest films I’ve seen in recent memory, full of those big phony “moments” when the whole room stops so someone can say his or her big line and get a big contrived reaction. Like when CIA director Leon Panetta (played James Gandolfini), asks who “this girl” is at the Important Meeting to look over the scale model of the Bin Laden compound, and Chastain sticks out her sweet cleft chin and says, “I'm the motherfucker that found this place, sir!"

Boy, that sure shuts him up! And all the men in positions of power look at each other as if to say, what a spunky gal! You gotta look out for those redheads!

This is also one of those Hollywood films in which fifty kinds of brutal hell are thrown at the “natives,” but you’re supposed to care most about how the good-looking Americans feel about witnessing it. Are they okay? In the opening torture scene, Jessica Chastain’s character literally answers that question while watching a bloody half-naked guy suspended from the ceiling getting the works: “I’m fine,” she quavers bravely. Then at the end, as she’s going home at last, Mission Accomplished, we get a big gorgeous close-up of her as she sheds large round Hollywood tears.

That poor, poor CIA agent! What she’s had to go through! Will she ever be truly whole again?

But like I say, this kinda stuff goes over with a lot of people. Just the announcement that a film deals with important issues is often enough to make everyone solemn and impressed. Academy Award nominations follow in logical order, as well as outrage that Kathryn Bigelow didn’t get hers. How could the sainted director of The Hurt Locker—which also dealt with important issues and won Best Picture for doing it—not even be nominated?

That poor, poor Hollywood film director! What she’s had to go through! Will she ever be truly whole again?