The Movie Club

I Loved the Moral Murk of Zero Dark Thirty
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2013 8:30 AM

The Movie Club

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I loved the moral murk of Zero Dark Thirty.

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.

Photo by Jonathan Olley/Zero Dark Thirty, LLC. ©2012.

Dear Dana, Stephanie, and Wesley,

Dana, I hate to break up a Django Unchained voting alliance, but I ended up liking it quite a bit. If I’d been able to see it before I put my top 10 list together it might have made it on there. My experience with recent Tarantino films is that they seem slighter at first than they really are. I left Inglourious Basterds thinking it was impressive, entertaining, and shallow, a game of historical dress-up that I would probably never think about again. I filed a review saying as much and then found I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie. (In fact, at the moment it’s my favorite Tarantino.) Though I think it’s a shaggier effort, Django Unchained has similarly stayed with me. Looked at unkindly, Tarantino’s last two films are an act of Mary Sue-ing himself into history to correct its mistakes. But I think they’re more complex than that, and I’m fascinated by his hall of mirrors game of reflecting history through different film genres and what that game says about our 100+ year habit of using movies to portray, and reshape, the past.

That said, I think Tarantino has always inhabited a Manichean universe. It’s evident in the “there’s only two ways a person can answer” deleted scene from Pulp Fiction, in which Uma Thurman asks John Travolta a series of theoretically character-defining either/or questions, and the way Tarantino shrugged off comparisons between Kill Bill and The Bride Wore Black by saying “I’m a Godard fan, not a Truffaut fan.” Most recently, that attitude popped up in Tarantino’s John Ford-is-evil statements in an interview with Henry Louis Gates. For all the complexity he creates within them, Tarantino’s films exist in a black-and-white world, and I ultimately find the moral murk of a film like Zero Dark Thirty more compelling.

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I’m almost reluctant to bring up the debate over the film’s depiction of torture again, even if addressing it seems inevitable. I’ve felt like those speaking out against the film (assuming they bothered to watch it before condemning it) were coming at it from the wrong angle, taking it as an article of faith that torture never yields results and treating the suggestion that it might have proven useful as heresy. Part of what makes Zero Dark Thirty work is the way the actions and attitudes of its CIA characters reflected the national mood in the decade between 9/11 and the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound. The interrogation techniques in which they engage are repellent and immoral—and, as Glenn Kenny’s analysis of the film nicely articulates, the cinematic language used is anything but heroic—but they deem it necessary and, for a while at least, we as a country let that happen. I’m anti-torture and I spent those years feeling as if I was living in an era that had suddenly regressed several centuries by even entertaining a debate over its use (even now, it feels weird to have to say, “I’m anti-torture”). But, if I’m honest with myself, in the back of my mind at the time I thought, “Well, if it stops the next 9/11 …” The whole film takes place in a space where that kind of morally adrift thinking can become horrific practice. Dana, your take on it as a film about revenge and its dissatisfactions is spot-on.

As nicely as Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty play off one another, I’m reluctant to extrapolate a theory about the movie year from them. If anything, this year felt a bit shapeless, dominated on one end by superhero fantasies like The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers (both of which I liked and both of which snuck in at least a sprinkling of moral ambiguity) and on the other by unexpected bursts of creativity like Beasts of the Southern Wild and Holy Motors. The former sort tromped into the multiplexes with corporate efficiency at their appointed release dates made years ago (even if they arrived with the distinctive voice of their creators intact). But who could have seen either of the latter two coming? Or Andrea Arnold’s disarmingly raw, lyrical take on Wuthering Heights, which takes remarkable liberties with Emily Brontë’s novel while creating an interpretation that’s true to its dark heart? As dispiriting as the never-ending onslaught of movies-as-product can be—Wesley, I believe you’re penning a review of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D as I write this—I kept finding myself surprised throughout the year. Maybe shapelessness isn’t such a bad thing.

I think my eagerness to dig into the year has gotten in the way of my manners. Let me sign off this first post by thanking Dana for the invitation and saying that it’s an honor and privilege to share this conversation with some of my favorite critics, particularly following a strange year for me professionally, one that left me without full-time employment. So long as movies give us as much to talk about as they did in 2012, I’ll never feel like I chose the wrong profession.

Keith

Keith Phipps is a Chicago-based freelance writer and editor specializing in film and other aspects of pop culture.

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