Printer Friendly

The war on art and zero dark thirty.

  "What gives a film its power, grandeur, and beauty
  is not on the screen. It breaks through the screen.
  It is the desire, the love carried by the film,
  which is precisely what allows one to speak of
  the film otherwise than as an object, a work, or
  a production."

  --Jean-Luc Nancy, Adoration (1)

  "I like it. It's got layers ... you know?
  lots of layers."

  --Hans/Christopher Walken, Seven Psychopaths
  (Martin McDonagh 2012)

Americans love their wars. Given the opportunity, they will declare war on just about anything that moves. You've got your war on poverty, which some people might mistakenly confuse with the Occupy Movement, but which actually was a government sponsored war back in the dim recesses of history when the government still pretended people were more important than banks. You've got your war on drugs, now in its 62nd glorious year--and counting. You've got your war on terror, now in its 12th glorious year. You've got your war on Iraq, which is best left forgotten (along with the War on Viet Nam). You've got your war on the family--well, at least according to the Tea Baggers. And the list goes on: the war on crime, the war on women, the war on cancer, the war on gangs, and even the war on Christmas. And lurking around the edges of all these other declared and undeclared wars is their hidden, bastard sibling, the war on art.


The war on art is constant, but unlike other wars, it is mostly undeclared and often invisible. It lurks in the dark corners of the culture waiting for some 'elitist' artist to cross a line before bursting into full scale hostilities. It's an old American tradition. As long as art stays confined to scenes of the sun setting over the Pacific or clever, ironic poems about broken hearts, or even clear moral declarations on the evil of, well, whatever--homophobia, gay marriage, slavery, crazy Iranian militants--all is peaceful. But offend someone, challenge the status quo, put a crucifix in a jar of urine, or write a realistic book about the stupidity of racism and slavery, and howls rip through the nation. Committee meetings are called, investigations launched, budgets threatened, grants cancelled--until morality triumphs, and everyone goes back to feeling secure and smug.

For some reason, a lot of artists seem drawn to cross that line, even to set up camp on the other side. Not out of perversity, and often not even on purpose, but simply because that's what art demands, to be outside and further so the work can happen. It's not a grudge against morality; it's just that morality is not that relevant to the work which, if it is real work, tends to find itself in an encounter with the world's excessive sense. Art raises questions that propel the mind not toward answers but towards questions, into a bewildered awe, and the tight boundaries moralism imposes are antagonistic to that.

That's why what is art and what isn't will always be the stuff of unresolvable fights. While the war sometimes may seem to be specific to this issue or that (e.g. sacrilege, torture, sex, violence), behind those issues it has to do with art's excess because that excess is what is always beyond control, what overflows the given, what unsettles: Michelangelo's nudes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; Mark Twain's dialogue accurately reflecting the voices of his world; Stravinsky's dissonance and bizarre instrumentation; Duchamp's--well, pretty much anything Duchamp did. And art is certainly not a passive victim of these contests. It is often art's own war with a culture of universal equivalence which demands that it legitimize itself through politics or economics, or that it confirm the 'given'.



The outrage over art's insistence on unsettling the world is part of what Jean-Luc Nancy calls a "horizon of subtraction". In a world where everything is equivalent to a price, where exchange value is all the value left us, the mind closes in on itself shutting down any sense beyond the immediately, materially present. Within that horizon of subtraction, the work of art is assumed to coincide with itself, to be content within a signification. It is a closed structure, utterly determined and with no outside. Any attempt to exceed that horizon of subtraction is met with explosions of rhetorical outrage. Usually the explosions are politically specific, the artist having excited the ire of moralists on either the right or the left. The recent attacks--and they are attacks, not simply criticism--on Katherine Bigelow's film, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), are unusual because their rage comes from across the political spectrum. On the right, the film was condemned by no less than Senator John McCain, war hero and foiled presidential candidate, who claimed Bigelow's film, first of all, was slandering America by falsely proposing that the US ever used torture in the so-called war-on-terror; and secondly, was traitorously fuelling Islamist extremism. Zero Dark Thirty was even briefly the object of a U.S. Senate investigation that was cancelled immediately after the film was snubbed at the Academy Award ceremony.

Meanwhile on the left, various liberals and radicals claimed the movie is an apology for torture. Ed Asner and Martin Sheen, two usually progressive actors, criticized the film and suggested Academy members should ignore it in the awards competition, which they in fact did. (2) A number of law professors including Marjorie Cohn (3) at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law and Ramzi Kassem (4) at City University of New York School of Law, issued long analyses damning the film's representation of torture and arguing that Bigelow and screen writer Mark Boal were 'complicit' in defending torture as a useful tool for extracting information. Capping off the explosion of moralist outrage were celebrity radicals Slavoj Zizek (5) and Naomi Wolf (6) who leapt on the bandwagon charging that the film is "a gift to American power" and "propaganda" for the use of torture. Wolf went so far as to scurrilously compare Bigelow's film to Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. The charge of propaganda is interesting because it raises the question of art, but then evades the implications the question raises. What is propaganda and what is art, and what is their relation?

What is at stake is the world itself, our thinking of it, our encounter with its plenitude. Depending on how gestures are imagined and executed, what thinking animates them, how they are composed in the work, they may open us to that plenitude or close it down. Stanley Cavell, in a discussion of the conventional gestures of film, points out that the slow motion, floating sequence that opens Riefenstahl's film has a very different resonance when used in other films like The World of Henry Orient (George Roy Hi11, 1969) or Popi (Arthur Hiller, 1964). (7) In Riefenstahl's film, it indicates the slow descent of power into the world in a god-like entrance. In both Popi and The World of Henry Orient on the other hand, it is part of the invocation of the freedom of childhood from the weight of the (adult) world. While Riefenstahl uses the convention to lockdown emotional meaning, Arthur Hiller and George Roy Hill use it to suggest an opening.

Propaganda differs from art precisely in that it locks up sense in a determined and specific meaning, whereas art opens it. Propaganda is meant to shut down thinking, imprison it in a fixed determination, where art opens thinking up to the restitution of the horizon, its reopening into the world beyond it. The power of Triumph of the Will rests in its overwhelming sense of a world fully signified, to use a further distinction of Nancy's. Every gesture in the film is composed with an eye toward presenting Hitler and National Socialism as the heroic saviours of Germany. It mobilizes emotions toward a communion of awe. Nancy argues that art does the opposite, that it "disengages the senses from signification, or rather, it disengages the world from signification ... " (8) Art in that sense is compensation for the closing-in that otherwise defines the limits of our condition in this history where we find ourselves.

What makes this possible, the exuberance of compensation, is the utter specificity of each detail that makes up "images whose meaning exceed the circumstances that provide their occasion," a quote attributed to Walker Evans by a character in Elmore Leonard's novel, La Brava. (9) John Berger calls it "nature." "Art," he says, "is an organized response to what nature allows us to glimpse occasionally. ... Art sets out to transform the potential recognition into an unceasing one." (10) If propaganda, like ideology which is necessary to it, closes sense down, imprisons it within the strict parameters of its overdetermined images, art introduces us to the incommensurable and invites us to an intimacy with it, where that intimacy is tied up with the openings of thinking. This is the tension between the poles of the possible gestures associated with the various arts. At the one end, specificity demands attention to details, both in the work itself and in the relation the work sets up between itself and the world of works in order to open the horizon of subtraction. At the other end, broad generalities overcome specificity while laying claim to truth in order to overwhelm thinking with emotion and so subject it to configurations of communion and closure.

At the heart of the attacks on Bigelow's film is a reduction that identifies the meaning of the film with a single element of its plot, as if the film is never more than the story it tells. That element is "getting bin Laden." Once the film is reduced to that the critics can ignore its specificities in order to claim it is nothing more than a story about the efficacy of torture in that pursuit. But it is precisely the specificities that harbour the intricacies of the film's sense. Berger offers a terrific example in his reading of Monet's Impression, Soleil Levant. The critics of Bigelow's film would probably see Monet's painting as being about a guy in a boat watching the sun come up. What Berger finds in the painting's specificities is a remarkable change "in the relation between seer and seen" that infuses the painting with a sense of metaphysical homelessness:

  The transparency of the thin pigment representing the
  water--the thread of the canvas showing through it,
  the swift broken-straw-like brush strokes suggesting
  ripples of spars, the scrubbed-in area of shadow, the
  reflections staining the water, the optical
  truthfulness and the objective vagueness, all this
  renders the scene makeshift, threadbare, decrepit.
  It is an image of homelessness. (11)

Under Berger's careful and meticulous eye, the 'guy in the boat' yields the weight of an enormous historical transformation that redefines human possibility in an era when the ground of existence disappears along with the possibility of representation. The details of the art propel thinking toward a revelation. But, as Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit propose, this relation to art involves an "effort" that "is the work of spectatorship." (12) It involves, "first of all, allowing ourselves to be transformed from one mode of vision to another, to be jolted out of our ingrained habits of cinematic viewing." (13) It is questionable whether the various critics of Bigelow's film--right and left--have any interest in being jolted out of anything.

Some art demands such a transformation. Other art, not so much. Argo (2012), a film released around the same time as Zero Dark Thirty, also about the conflict between the U.S. and forces of radical Islam, and which went on to reap numerous awards including best picture at the same Academy Awards presentation that snubbed Bigelow's film, is in the not so much category. No matter how much effort the spectator puts into viewing Argo, no jolt is forthcoming. All that the details of the film yield is a further sense of closure. The heroic efforts of the CIA to rescue American hostages from a hostile Iran remain exactly that and nothing more. It is a good example of very well-made propaganda. As a kind of war film (it's context is a conflict between America and an implacable enemy), it never escapes the caricatures of the genre--utterly evil enemies hell-bent on destroying freedom loving Americans. Even the one exception, the Iranian housekeeper at the Canadian embassy, reinforces the stereotype of the maddened Iranian masses by her singularity and her ultimate escape from Iran. Nothing in the film points beyond the story. There is no provocation to thought, no jolt.


Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, is powerfully provocative from the very first scene, refusing to allow the viewer to settle into a comfortable relation to the screened images. It, too, is a war movie, so what's at stake in our thinking of the movie begins with what kind of war we are given, how it is given to us, and what is asked from us in that exchange. Bigelow is fascinated with the genre, with the specific realities of war and their effects on those caught up in them. Her previous film, The Hurt Locker (2008), looked closely at the intense relationships that develop between soldiers constantly exposed to violence and death. That war--the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq--is related to the war at the heart of Zero Dark Thirty, but is different in crucial ways. The Hurt Locker is the story of an urban guerrilla war, and while the war is unconventional, it is still recognizable. The Americans are trying to hold onto an actual place, while the guerrilla fighters, occupying no territory themselves, but ubiquitous, seek to drive them out.

By contrast, the war in Zero Dark Thirty is barely recognizable as a war at all. Until the last scene, the Americans are usually pictured not suited up on battlefields or in devastated urban landscapes but wearing jeans and tee-shirts or business suits in rooms and offices of varying sizes, talking, while their enemies are nowhere to be seen except in sporadic attacks on civilians in distant places: London, Riyadh, Islamabad. There is no physically occupied space at stake. The "battles" take place in hotels and buses where Islamist fighters--also known as terrorists--massacre various groups of civilians with guns and bombs, presumably with the objective of forcing governments to change policy, although it is never clear. This war has no location, no battlegrounds where opposing armed forces meet, and its primary weapon, at least on the American side, is not munitions but information. It is neither a hot war, a cold war, nor even what Jean Baudrillard calls a 'non-war', a war waged in the media, though it has elements of that. It is a unique war, and so a unique war movie, and part of what is at stake is the struggle to understand it.

Even so, the film is part of the war genre, a genre whose seeming unity contains a hive of differences generated as much by political agendas as artistic ones. War movies produced during the heat of war notoriously yield to an impulse for propaganda, while those made with the advantage of hindsight tend to be more thoughtful. Back to Bataan (1945) is as different from The Thin Red Line (1998) as The Green Berets (1968) is from Full Metal Jacket (1987). Zero Dark Thirty is unusual for, among other things, critically examining an ongoing conflict. Those accusing it of being propaganda clearly haven't seen Act of Valor (2012). (14)

As with all genres, the determining rules are as much sites for invention as for restriction. Because of the implicit politics of both war itself and its representations, difference is all the more intense, even violent. John Wayne's World War II movies made no pretext of examining the dark side of war or the humanity of the enemy. They were geared toward rallying support for the war effort by demonizing the Japanese and glorifying the heroism of American soldiers and their allies. Demonizing the enemy is the primary goal of propaganda war movies as a way of mobilizing the home front. One of the central scenes in Back to Bataan involves a Japanese captain who orders the benign principal of a Pilipino school, Senor Bello to haul down the U.S. flag. When Bello refuses, the Japanese captain hangs him from the flag pole in front of his horrified students. We understand there is a specific, limited, and total purpose to this imagery and to the film it defines. The same is true of the opening scene of Act of Valor where a terrorist uses an ice cream truck to kill the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, taking out an entire schoolyard of children he has attracted to the ice cream truck in the process. As he walks away from the explosion, a burning, screaming child runs around the corner out of the flames behind him to nail down the meaning and make sure we get the point. These set-ups are similar to scenes in The Fighting Seabees (1944), The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), The Green Berets and any number of other war movies. With variations, they could be called 'the evil, duplicitous enemy murders the good natured, naive American scenes'; their conventional goal is to produce an emotional response in the spectator that involves the desire for revenge based on an objectification of the enemy.


Vengeance also enters Zero Dark Thirty, but as part of the emotional discourse in the film. The set-up involves the protagonist Maya/Jessica Chastain's friend, Jessica/Jennifer Ehle, and her meeting with a doctor, an alleged Jordanian mole in Al Qaeda. As she and others wait in Camp Chapman in Afghanistan for the doctor to arrive, a strong sense of foreboding builds. The foreboding has something to do with the vast, almost hostile distances the approaching car moves through as it approaches the fortified encampment, like some inevitable disaster. It is amplified by the sound track, the haunting "Night Song" by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan which seems to promise doom, a doom all the more insistent as Jessica demands that the hesitant U.S. soldiers allow the car into the heavily fortified camp without the usual search. The vastness of the desert is then offset by cramped shots of body parts in the approaching car, a hand on the wheel, flashes of an undefined face in the back seat. The music, the cinematography, all create a sense of the approaching disaster that peaks as an Afghan man exits the car, his hand in his robe, the soldiers yelling at him to show his hands, the panic rising, till the inevitable blast occurs.

In the final seconds before the explosion, the camera cuts from Jessica, beginning to show doubt, to three different soldiers whose increasing anxiety and near panic are evident as they scream at the Afghani and threaten to shoot him; and then to Jessica again who, in a final flash, seems both querulous and resigned to impending disaster. She (a "mother of three," as she is described on the radio report) has recently threatened to kill the Afghani if he fails to realize his promise as a mole, and now seems suddenly to understand too late that the tables have been turned on her. The camera then pulls back to the middle distance as the bomb goes off, and almost immediately it withdraws over the camp, locating the explosion in a kind of objective frame, the cloud of smoke within the fortified camp surrounded by the desert. The scene reeks of inevitability. From the very first moment of the sequence, the events unfold toward an inexorable doom. And when the doom occurs, it is located dispassionately in the emptiness of the desert.

There is no upwelling of emotion, no surge of vengeful feelings, except for Maya's. As the wind blows the smoke away, the scene cuts to her last text message: "answer when you can ... ", then to her face as she swivels to hear the news of the bombing, then back to the camp in the desert, smoke billowing, as a news announcer describes the incident. In the following scene, Maya sits curled up on the floor in shock, drinking. After she receives the (ultimately false) news that Abu Ahmed has been killed, her colleague Jack/Harold Perrineau enters, and asks her what she is going to do. Looking slightly demonic, her haggard face etched with shadow as if the roles had been reversed here and she was the one now driven by maniacal hatred, she responds, "I am going to smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I'm going to kill bin Laden."

This is the classic, generic moment in a propaganda film when the audience's resolve to fight the enemy should reflect the hardened resolve of the characters on the screen. But that's not what Bigelow gives us. Instead of hardened resolve, Jack (who is a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the dramatic action) first drops his eyes, then turns them away from Maya, as if he can't look at her, and looks down. It is a gesture that can only be read as defeat or resignation. There is certainly no approval in it, no resolve. This is hardly the expected commitment to vengeance.

The nature of the war itself, as it is reflected in Maya's transformation, is the stake here. At the beginning of the film, Maya enters the space of the film from outside, literally from the black screen that opens the movie punctuated by the voices recorded on September 11, 2001. The penultimate voice is that of a young woman on a phone in the World Trade Center crying, "I'm going to die" while an emergency operator attempts to reassure her help is on the way. The final words are the operator's who mutters "Oh, my God." The film then cuts to an interrogation room where a prisoner is strung up and Dan/Jason Clarke enters with a group of masked people including Maya following him. Dan and the others, tall bulky men in fatigue pants and black tee-shirts, are clearly part of the place. Maya, a petite woman dressed in a business suit, is not. She arrives from outside, from "spaces designated as the necessary but unpainted extensions of certain formal elements within the work" as Bersani and Dutoit put it in their discussion of Caravaggio and Godard's work. (15) This outside both contextualizes the events that are about to occur in the film, and locates the viewers who are about to witness them.

The outside Maya arrives from is the Homeland. Once it is invoked, it operates as an implicit backdrop for everything that happens. Maya enters the war, a fresh recruit, green, naive, innocent, but eager to fight the good fight without yet realizing the horror implicit in it--a classic, conventional figure in the war movie. The good fight involves, as always, defending America and its values--freedom, democracy, basic human decency--against some tyrannical threat; in this case, the threat associated with the young girl's voice from the World Trade Center. As happens in so many war movies, she stumbles into the brutal fact of war, her innocence sticking out, as they say, like a sore thumb.

This introduces the scene that provoked the moralist hysteria against the film--a graphic representation of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" authorized by the Bush administration under the guidance of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld for use against captured "terrorists." This scene is remarkable for the way it presents torture, specifically in the dynamic established by the camera angles. Ammar/Reda Kateb has obviously been savagely beaten when we first see him; strung up by his arms, hanging from wires, his face cut and bruised. As Dan begins his interrogation, the camera angles down on Ammar and up at Dan. The shots down on Ammar embody a brutal power over a helpless, wounded victim. The shots up at Dan reinforce that sense of unbridled power and viciousness. The result is a deep emotional confusion, with the viewer's point-of-view destabilized. Since the scene comes hard on the heels of the 9/11 victim's voice, it ought to be a clear and unambiguous announcement of righteous anger and revenge. Dan's anger is palpable, but the viewer's ability to identify with it is troubled and subverted by the cinematography which forces her to sympathize with Ammar as well.

All that we see of Maya in this brief scene is her eyes through a slit in the balaclava that covers her face like a niqab. They are full of muted horror. When Dan walks by her on the way out, she shifts her eyes down, as if in shame. Outside the room, with the balaclava and jacket removed, Maya is revealed as a young, petite woman dressed in a business pant suit that would be more suitable in a New York law office than a black ops site in Afghanistan. She is utterly out of place, a fact Dan notes with irony. She is also clearly in shock, but determined to follow through on her commitment. Dan offers her the possibility of watching the interrogation on a monitor, but she refuses, just as she refuses to put the balaclava back on. Young, naive, idealistic and female, she is compelled to prove herself in what is clearly a challenge to her moral sense.

Once back in the room, Maya stands hugging herself for comfort. When Ammar refuses to talk and Dan prepares for the waterboarding scene, the camera lingers on Maya who radiates moral agony, glancing around the room so as not to have to look at what is happening. After Dan throws Ammar to the ground and pins him, he tells Maya to get him the bucket, which she does, though obviously uncomfortable with the request. As the torture proceeds, her revulsion becomes the focus of the scene as the camera repeatedly returns to her face.

The meaning of the scene refuses to settle into some clear signification. Located immediately after the 9/11 calls, it opens as a site of revenge. The camera undercuts that, however, forcing the viewer to identify with the victim. But Dan's anger is the viewer's anger as well, as he recites Ammar's crimes and his material support of the attack on the World Trade Center. That identification itself is undercut by the continuing focus on Maya's disgust and revulsion. And that is brought into question as well by her participation in the torture, a necessity if this petite woman is to gain entry into the "man's world" of the interrogation room, if the green recruit is to be accepted by the hardened veteran.

It is an episode of unrelenting brutality viewed from multiple perspectives; its repercussions emanate through the film toward an ultimate doom. Maya is the measure of the progress and the doom, and the scene where Jack turns away from her transformation with resignation and defeat is the site where the ambiguities of the opening torture scene resolve--as much as anything resolves in this film--into a monstrous vengeance. Maya's transformation is the heart of the film's meaning, and that is lost if we lose sight of her extraordinary ambivalence at the beginning, and the sense of duty, even justice, that underlies it.

Maya does not simply "learn the ropes" in that opening scene, as one of Bigelow's critics facilely proposed. (16) Moved by a sense of duty and a drive to right the wrong of 9/11, she wills herself to participate in an activity she (and we) finds morally repulsive in order to defend the Homeland, as she puts it. But in the scene that follows Jessica's death, vengeance replaces justice as the motivation for the pursuit of bin Laden and the nature of the war starts to come into focus. Whatever the development here is 'about', it reveals a war with no purpose and no politics other than revenge, a 'war' stripped of all illusions of glory, honour, justice, idealism, even measurable geo-political goals, and revealed as payback. It has become in essence a feud. And it has happened with the same kind of inevitability that haunted Jessica's death.

A feud is a strange, informal kind of war. Not exactly Deleuze's war machine which, though informal, operates within a nomadic potential. There are elements of that, but the war machine exists in relation to the state as a remnant of something that existed before the state, and the feud is purely personal. A feud is privatized war. Not just privatized as the US military regime is, so that the war profits flow to Haliburton and Academi (a war machine formerly as Blackwater), but privatized right down to the motives for the war. You could look at a feud as privatized war without the booty, a war whose sole motivation is vengeance for cascading acts of violence that have no ascertainable origin and no end other than mutual annihilation.


In any case, this is unlike any war we are familiar with. It is thoroughly post-modern in that it has moved beyond nation states battling each other with armies over territory and resources. None of the old vocabulary works. The most traditional military dimension of the film is the last real-time thirty minute Seal attack on bin Laden's compound. This attack reveals a war even the soldiers are uneasy with, a systematic assassination in which numerous unarmed non-combatants are killed in cold blood and bin Laden himself is simply executed. Children witness the slaughter of their parents while women and other children scream and whimper in the background.

One eerie scene, and its aftermath, is particularly provocative. Justin/Chris Pratt leads a group of Seals in through a blown door where Abrar/Noureddine Haijjoujou, in a nightshirt, tries to shoot them, but is shot instead. As he falls, his wife/Nour Alkawaja rushes in screaming in grief and fear, throws herself on his body, then starts to pick up his rifle. Justin shoots her twice in the back. She falls and as he rolls her body over with his foot, the camera lingers on her face, the face of a beautiful young woman framed by flowing black hair, and then, next to her, Abrar, her handsome young husband. Justin then shoots Abrar in the heart to make sure he is dead.

At this point the camera withdraws from the room so that we see Justin framed in a window. His head and upper torso are visible, but nothing else other than the sudden flash of one more shot. Since Abrar is already dead, the final shot can only be another for his wife. The camera then cuts to an extreme close up of Justin's eye illuminated by the green light of the night vision goggles as he stares through the scope of his rifle. A small dot of white light illuminates the centre of his pupil, the rest of his face in shadow, as he gazes unblinking at the two bodies. The shot holds for five long seconds, forcing us to consider what is going on in his mind as he looks at the remains of the two young lives he has just terminated. It is not horror exactly, but it is not not horror, either. It is some kind of contemplation that is part of a stunned recognition that this is not the enemy he had expected. As he turns away, the camera sweeps over their bodies one more time as their children begin to cry and whimper in the next room.

Slightly later, Justin tells his superior, Patrick, that he "smoked Abrar ... and his wife." When Patrick asks if she is still alive, Justin responds, "She's gonna bleed out," an obvious evasion. Why would Justin lie to Patrick about having executed Abrar's wife? Because he is ashamed? Because he can't reconcile himself to executing a woman in cold blood? Because he can't fully process the fact that the enemy looks like the beautiful young couple he "smoked"? Because, like the perpetrators of the attack on the World Trade Center, he has orphaned a room full of whimpering children? Because ... he has become like the enemy in this war that is not a war--this feud? The film leads us to these questions. It does not answer them.

It does, however, suggest that the costs of this unprecedented war are themselves unprecedented. To make the torture scene "what the movie is about" is to refuse to watch the film, but instead to force it into some particular use. The torture scenes are a plot device. They establish an unfolding horror, an inevitable cruelty that flows through the feud/war toward Maya's final moment in the airplane with the same inevitability that the car moved through the desert toward Jessica's doom. Alone in the vast belly of American technology, ready finally to leave Afghanistan, mission accomplished, Maya is dazed. When the pilot asks her where she wants to go, she is silent, unable to answer. The obvious response, as some friends suggested to me, is 'home', back to the Homeland she has thought of herself as defending. But she can't say it, arguably because it--home, the Homeland--no longer exists, at least not in the form she had pledged to defend. Her defense has destroyed it. She has become the image of a profound spiritual homelessness.

Then she begins to weep. Her tears, like Justin's stare, are in fact what the movie is 'about', not some simple minded notion of "getting bin Laden." The full power of Bigelow's art explodes here as Maya's silence and tears invoke the horror of a war that no one can name, even though they glibly call it the War on Terror, a war that no one understands, a war that strips the world of any illusion of value--a war that turns its own legitimizing staples ("honour" and "valour") into terrible ironies, drained of substance by too many euphemisms such as collateral damage whose goal is to mask the reality of the conflict. It is the horror of the recognition of the irreparable wound the war has inflicted on the nation's soul.

For Bigelow's critics, the film is completely defined by the fact that the interrogation of Ammar eventually yields a small piece of information that in the end leads Maya to bin Laden. This is a crucial move in their war on art, part of the drive to turn the film toward their own uses, to reduce it to an equivalence in an intellectual economy of equivalence. Whether or not torture works is irrelevant to a serious consideration of the film. The torture is the moment of infection, the first touch of the betrayal, the horror, which destroys America's soul precisely when it seems to succeed. It is the moment when the U.S. turns its back on its enduring thought of itself as a fortress of decency, human rights, integrity, and justice for all. The death of bin Laden, far from being a moment of triumph, is the moment of moral catastrophe.

It is understandable that John McCain and others would want to wage war on Bigelow's art. They are engaged in a rear guard action to hide its truths. Not simply the truth that horrible war crimes were committed under the direction of the highest levels of the US government, though that is certainly one goal of the smoke and mirror games they were playing with their outraged press conferences, noisy declarations of innocence, and faked Senate investigations. But it's the revelation of the moral collapse at the heart of Bigelow's film that truly terrifies them, whether they know it or not. That is art's power, to catch you up in its excessive sense even without your knowledge. If The Hurt Locker envisions how war brutalizes men's souls, Zero Dark Thirty ups the ante, envisioning how this war that is not a war has brutalized the soul of a nation, perhaps fatally, and that is not a revelation that the US wants circulated and acclaimed. Their attacks on Bigelow worked to the extent that the film was shunned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and so denied the attention that comes with its recognition.

Why the radical/liberal cohort joined the government's war on art is a little more complicated. Given the anti-American politics that characterizes much of their public agenda, you would think they would be jubilant, given the film's brilliant and terrifying rendition of America's spiral into moral self-destruction. But they have no interest in being jolted into the excesses of meaning that the film offers. They attack it ostensibly because of its content. The real problem, however, is the exuberant sense which refuses to settle into moralist categories; that in fact disrupts them, which opens the horizon toward the world beyond what we already know. Antithetical machines erected on oedipal obsessions will not yield to any embrace, especially not with the mystery at the heart of art. Add to that a justice fixation that is equated with virtue (part of a society of general equivalence) and an enmity toward the thought of beauty. In that context, the sheer excess of art is a threat to their control of a discourse organized around moral certainty in a world made up of binary oppositions. For them, art consists solely of codes waiting to be neatly deciphered in support of theoretical abstractions.

Unlike America's other wars, the war on art mostly does not announce itself. It doesn't have to. The horizon of subtraction assures a consistent universalizing equivalence that quite handily contains most excessive non-material aberrations. So what's the point? And if anything does escape that reduction, emergency containment options are ready. Whether they are dressed up as aggressive, political duplicity and manipulation or self-righteous, political virtue doesn't much matter. The goal is the same; to reassert the horizon, to reduce the "love carried by the film" to a plot device. The charge of propaganda is ironic because it operates within a campaign to singularize signification, to reduce perception of the film to a controlled response--outrage over torture. Moralisms are almost always at work in these operations, but don't necessarily drive them. They are more likely to show up infesting the shadows of some anxiety about ruptured thought and the world it opens. That opening is the threat at the heart of the war on art, the source of the various skirmishes and battles waged to contain it. Moral outrage is a cover. A film like Bigelow's is dangerous because it seriously challenges the limits of the horizon--and not quietly in some small, arcane gallery in an obscure corner of the city, but on thousands of screens around the world.


(1.) Jean-Luc Nancy: Adoration: The Deconstruction of Christianity II. (NY: Fordham UP, 2013) p.86.

(2.) Hollywood Reporter, 12 January 2013.

(3.) Marjorie Cohn, "Zero Dark Thirty: Torturing the facts." Huffington Post, 11 January 2013. Web

(4.) Ramzi Kassem, "The Zero Dark Thirty Controversy." Huffington Post, 15 January 2013. Web

(5.) Slavoj Zizek, "Zero Dark Thirty: Hollywood's gift to American power." The Guardian, 25 January 2013. Web

(6.) Naomi Wolf, "A letter to Kathryn Bigelow on Zero Dark Thirty's apology for torture." The Guardian, 14 January 2013.

(7.) Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film Enlarged Edition. (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1979) p. 133.

(8.) Nancy, op. cit. p. 52.

(9.) Elmore Leonard: Lo Bravo. (NY: HarperCollins, 2009 [1983]), p. 142. It is an interesting moment in Leonard's pulp fiction novel where the discussion of the main character's photographic art suddenly slips its bounds and begins to refer to the work of the novel itself, undermining any attempt to isolate art in contrast to the productions of popular culture. The implication is that art happens anywhere the work exceeds the circumstances of its occasion.

(10.) John Berger: The Sense of Sight. NY: Pantheon, 1985, p. 174.

(11.) Berger, op. cit. p. 191.

(12.) Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit: Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity. (London: British Film Institute, 2008), p.8.

(13.) In Act of Valor, a film promoted for its so-called "realism," the war on terror is presented as a literal video game with first person shooter scenes in which a troop of "real" Navy Seals mow down everything that moves in order to save America from an insidious terrorist threat.

(14.) Bersani and Dutoit, op. cit. p. 1.

(15.) Zizek, op. cit.
COPYRIGHT 2013 CineAction
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Boughn, Michael
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2013
Previous Article:A room of its own: screening space and spectatorial experience in Yang Fudong's fifth night and Omer fast's continuity.
Next Article:Framing death and desire: painted portraits in film noir.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters