The Monitor Mentality, or A Means to an End Becomes an End in Itself: Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty"

 "We don't know what we don't know."
"What the fuck does that mean?"
"It's a tautology." 

The protagonists of Zero Dark Thirty debate logic and theory. They are less spies and more espionage critics; they take copious notes, trade interrogation DVDs, and analyze their targets’ actions in terms of intention and authorship. Everything is founded on some kind of theoretical framework. Everything can be intellectualized.  “We don’t deal in certainty,” one CIA operative says, “we deal in probability.”   

What emerges is a portrait of modern warfare as an elaborate technocracy. Torture, surveillance, and enemy action are all treated as data, which is then used to calculate probabilities. These probabilities form the bases for future actions, which yield more data. The cycle goes on and on and on.

Kathryn Bigelow's new movie has a lot in common with another ambitious film released this year by a major American filmmaker—Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Both films deal with systems—the War on Terror in Zero Dark Thirty, the Cause in The Master—which purport to overcome past traumas (9/11, bad memories) by transforming lived experience into abstract objects (military intelligence data, the Cause's performance-based therapy) and which become ends in and of themselves. Pointedly, both systems are predicated on defamiliarization, dehumanization, and repetition.

Both films are populated with characters who are fictionalized version of real-world figures (it doesn't take a lot of digging to figure out that Zero Dark Thirty's "Jessica" is Jennifer Lynne Matthews, that "Joseph Bradley" is Jonathan Banks, and so on and so forth). Both also end on ambiguous notes and deliberately deny their viewers any sense of dramatic catharsis. 

But though The Master is easily the more ambitious and accomplished movie in terms of filmmaking, Zero Dark Thirty is more accomplished in terms of drama; while its images are never as potent as The Master's, it uses them more purposefully. 

***

"You don't want to be the last one holding a dog collar when the oversight committee comes."

Scripted by Mark Boal (who also wrote Bigelow's The Hurt Locker), Zero Dark Thirty is plotty, episodic, and heavy on title cards, which announce everything from date and location to theme ("Human Error," reads one). It opens with the 9/11 attacks—effectively represented by a black screen, a title card, and a handful of emergency call recordings—before moving  forward two years to the torture of suspected al-Qaeda associate Ammar (Reda Kateb) at the hands of CIA interrogator Dan (played by Jason Clarke as a terrifying, overgrown frat boy who treats his charge like a new pledge undergoing hazing).

The relationship created by this bit of montage—from 9/11 straight into "enhanced interrogation"—is significant to the film; with a single cut, Zero Dark Thirty posits the War on Terror as an outgrowth of national trauma. By extension, the viewer—or at least an American viewer—is made complicit.

The torture scenes—which take up a good chunk of the movie's first 45 minutes—are brutal and difficult to stomach. Ammar is forced to wear a dog collar, deprived of sleep and food, stuffed into a box, waterboarded. The torture yields no useful information—nor is it intended to. It serves only to instill Ammar with a fear of Dan and an understanding of the absolute power the interrogator has over him.

The "data-gathering" needs of the War on Terror enable and intellectualize Dan's sadism. It's a harsh view of the U.S. military intelligence process—especially because, rather than being aberrant, Dan is presented as typical. Once torture falls out of favor later in the film, he effortlessly slips into a new role as a Blackberry-carrying D.C. analyst. 

Despite presenting the actions of CIA interrogators during War on Terror in a negative light, Zero Dark Thirty has, in recent weeks, been accused of glorifying torture. The most vocal proponent of this idea, Glenn Greenwald, has written two columns on the subject for the Guardian—the first written before he had even seen the film, the second afterward.

As laid out by Greenwald, the case against Zero Dark Thirty rests not in its depictions of torture, but in the importance torture plays in its narrative. Greenwald's second column—which describes the film as "CIA propaganda"—accuses the film of presenting torture "uncritically" and of suggesting that it was torture that allowed the United States to eventually find Osama bin Laden. 

Greenwald's piece has a lot wrong with it: a lengthy, bizarre sub-section that consists mostly of a diatribe against the Hollywood studios and their big-budget blockbusters (like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty was produced independently); an apparent inability to distinguish a work of fiction from journalism; a total ignorance of form; a tendency to take as fact the opinions of people who haven't seen the film. 

Still, Greenwald's columns have gained a fair amount of traction, as have similar pieces written by Jane Mayer for The New Yorker and Peter Maass for The Atlantic. And though their main argument is easy to dismiss—the "enhanced interrogations" are useless within the context of the film's central investigation—their interpretation of the film should still be addressed. 

***

"I want targets. Do your fucking job. Bring me people to kill."

Osama bin Laden's face is never shown in Zero Dark Thirty. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are never mentioned. The lead-up to the invasion of Iraq is discussed—as an example of faulty logic—but not the invasion itself. Afghanistan appears only as an occupied territory. Barack Obama's election is never mentioned either; he appears only as a political candidate, briefly glimpsed on a TV. 

Stripped of the extra-textual baggage so central to the Greenwald / Mayer / Maass interpretation, what does Zero Dark Thirty amount to? A film about a system which is created to avenge an attack but whose primary purpose becomes self-justification and then self-perpetuation. 

For a thriller, Zero Dark Thirty is conspicuously short on on-screen villains. The main target of the film’s manhunt isn’t actually bin Laden, but his courier, Abu Ahmed—another non-character who appears chiefly in photos and tracking devices, and is glimpsed on camera only as a figure driving a car and as a corpse (in these brief appearances, he is actually played by the production’s IT administrator). The detainees, on the other hand, are sympathetic characters—traumatized by abuse, doomed to spend the rest of their lives in secret prisons. 

Zero Dark Thirty never acknowledges any beneficial real-world results of either the War on Terror or the death of bin Laden; one is therefore led to assume that there haven’t been any. The film’s final scene, which takes place a few hours before bin Laden's death is officially announced, depicts central character Maya (Jessica Chastain) boarding a troop transport plane; she is told by a crew member that they have orders to fly her anywhere she wants, but as the closing close-up lingers on her face, what registers is a profound purposelessness—an unspoken "What now?"

Maya begins the film as a ghostly figure lingering in the back of Dan's interrogation shed. Recruited into the CIA straight out of school, she has no real friends and no inner life. Her obsession with finding Abu Ahmed speaks less to dedication or professionalism (the film establishes several times that she’s disliked by many of her colleagues) than to a need for purpose. Like Sgt. James, the protagonist of The Hurt Locker, she uses war to fill an emotional void; without the manhunt, she has nothing.

She is, in other words, a perfect agent for the War on Terror—or, more specifically, the film’s version of the War on Terror. There’s no discussion in Zero Dark Thirty about the efficacy of torture—but also no talk about victory, jurisdiction, or justice. No one in the film ever suggests capturing and trying bin Laden.  

What the characters do talk about is process, probability, and the relative value of information. Warfare becomes data, and then data becomes the object of warfare, supplanting its original goals. When Osama bin Laden is killed in Zero Dark Thirty, his death is abrupt and anti-climactic. No burden is lifted. The Navy SEALs quickly load him into a body bag. He's just another corpse. They're more interested in his computer hard drives—the data that will allow the War on Terror to continue.

***

 "There's no shame if you want to watch from the monitor."

A fiction founded on fact is still fiction. Questioning the historical accuracy of Zero Dark Thirty's images—which is what Mayer and Maass have founded their arguments on—misses what those images actually portray (Greenwald's argument is founded largely on assertions about the film that range from specious to completely fabricated).

Zero Dark Thirty's tone is the opposite of a jingoistic rah-rah-rah. It's a grim movie which foregrounds the casual cruelty of its characters; it's not for nothing that it establishes the brutality of torture before establishing its function within the War on Terror, or that it details how the Navy SEALs who storm bin Laden's compound nonchalantly execute wounded combatants.

The film's main characters never do anything that could be interpreted as heroic; instead, what is always identified is how they—single-minded Maya, sadistic Dan, careerist Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), over-confident Jessica (Jennifer Ehle)—function as agents of a vast, impersonal system. Also present is a very large supporting cast (the film features over a hundred speaking roles) playing characters who are almost never identified by name; what identifies them instead is their place in the network—as informants, translators, lookouts, guards, analysts, surveillance specialists, decision-makers. The section of the film that deals with the Navy SEALs who eventually carry out the raid on bin Laden's compound begins with a title card that reads "Canaries."

Within Zero Dark Thirty's mise en scène, monitors and live video feeds become interchangeable with their real-world subjects. People become tracking device blips, shapes glimpsed through the spy planes, photos pasted on dry erase boards. Late in the film, Maya stands in the CIA's Predator control center, gazing at a wall-sized screen; in front of her is the ultimate expression of technocratic warfare—live video of a drone strike. 

Zero Dark Thirty is the first of Bigelow's films to have been shot digitally, and, like a number of films released this year—most notably Holy Motors, Leos Carax's first digitally-shot feature—it expresses an ambivalent attitude toward digitization.

Carax's film ends by declaring that "the era of visible machines is over." Bigelow's, less mournful, implicitly declares the end of the era of visible warfare. Bin Laden—never directly shown in the film, and referred to in the dialogue largely by the CIA initialism "UBL"—is the last real-world foe, and he is defeated by being turned into abstracted data; his location is not discovered, but deduced. When the CIA finally decides to strike against him, it's not out of moral imperative, but out of calculated probability.

Responses

17 responses to this post.  Join the discussion

  • john hawkins

    Well, I’m here at Mubi to watch a film. But I did come across this film review and wanted to say a word or two. I haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty either, but I will have read by week’s end three important narratives on the killing of UBL—Mark Owen’s No Easy Day, which is related by one the SEALs who actually shot UBL; Mark Bowden’s The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, which is an account largely from President Obama’s political POV; and, John Weisman’s Kill Bin Laden, which is a work of fiction, but which nevertheless has been described as the most truthful account of the killing. I have not read the Mayer or Maass pieces, but I am a regular reader of Greenwald.

    I believe that you are being rather unfair in your categorizations of Greenwald. There are two things that are true even before you see the movie: one, the film’s trailers definitely promote torture as reason to see the movie (“I’m not going to be your friend. I’m going to break you.” In other words, no pretense at Bad Cop/Good Cop—just all Bad Cop, Real Bad Cop). But more importantly, and what Greenwald seemed to be most outraged by, is the fact that a president who is busy being one of the least transparent executives to ever sit in the Oval Office, and who has mercilessly clamped down on whistleblowers and leakers of classified documents, has, by giving Boal and Bigelow a private audience where classified information was discussed, not merely established a hypocritical double standard but actually used the film-makers to push a meme that is not otherwise open to public discussion or examination. This is pure propaganda; there is no way of sugar-coating it. So, in that instance, I can certainly see where Greenwald is coming from.

    Now, when I watch the film, I will have the slight advantage of having read widely on the hunt for UBL first, especially the three crucial books above. There will be discrepancies—for instance, the female lead character in the film was actually based on CIA operative Michael Morrell. (It would be interesting to hear Bigelow tell why she changed genders.) I can deal with discrepancies. However, the subject of this film is not just ANY character; what UBL is supposedly guilty of—masterminding 9/11—has changed our world, eroded our freedoms, traumatized and driven people quite literally mad. And there’s no guarntee, by a long shot, that the 11 plus years of revenge had left us any safer in the future. Maybe there’s more of an obligation to get core facts straight—don’t you think?

  • Bradley Nguyen

    I’d probably wait and see the film before declaring it to be pure propaganda.

  • Mac

    of course it’s propaganda. the filmmakers wouldn’t have had the cooperation of the government if it wasn’t. and starting a film with a black screen and recorded phone calls from 9/11 is pandering at its worst, not to mention that this device has already been used before. and to make the most significant character in this story a beautiful – and jessica chastain is beautiful, sans make-up and wearing frumpy clothes or not – woman is perverse. yes, let’s all watch a movie about how the needless torture of innocent people – with the consent of the american public – is the cause of an existensial crisis for a porcelain-skinned redhead. bigelow is a bimbo with a healthy dose of testosterone running through her veins. movies like this play at being complicated, but they’re not. that the mainstream media is embracing this movie tells you all you need to know. if it were truly complicated, and even a mite subversive, and not the piece of propaganda it is (what i took away from this movie was this: we have created a system that is beyond our control and now there is nothing we can do about it – a classic cop-out), the mainstream media wouldn’t be coming anywhere near it. what america has been doing in the middle east for the last 10 years is beyond heinous, there is NO justification for it (not even 9/11), and what we have done will come back to haunt us in the worst possible way. i’m still waiting for a movie to talk about that. i’m sure i will be waiting for a long time.

  • Ali Arikan

    John Hawkins writes:

    “..But I did come across this film review and wanted to say a word or two. I haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty either, but I will have read by week’s end three important narratives on the killing of UBL—Mark Owen’s No Easy Day, which is related by one the SEALs who actually shot UBL; Mark Bowden’s The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, which is an account largely from President Obama’s political POV; and, John Weisman’s Kill Bin Laden, which is a work of fiction, but which nevertheless has been described as the most truthful account of the killing. I have not read the Mayer or Maass pieces, but I am a regular reader of Greenwald.”

    John, so you haven’t seen the film in question. You also have yet to finish the three books you cited. Finally, you have not read Jane Mayer or Peter Maass’ pieces, either. You’re missing the overall point a bit, aren’t you?

  • Checkpoint Charlie

    @ MAC

    “…and what we have done will come back to haunt us in the worst possible way. i’m still waiting for a movie to talk about that.”

    I’ll be waiting too, though maybe we’ll have to be the type of people who end up making it.

  • micah van hove

    While I was underwhelmed with the film as a whole, I’m pretty sure they made it outside the U.S. independently of any cooperation with the government. @ Mac

  • Mac

    ^ Micah: where do you think Boal and Bigelow got all of the information from in order to write the screenplay? Do you think they googled it?

  • Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

    Mac,

    Boal had been working on a bin Laden screenplay for years before bin Laden’s death (in fact, it was ready to go into production right when Operation Neptune Spear happened, and had to be delayed and totally re-written). He conducted interviews with key people. There were, in the lead-up to production, the usual conference calls with the government’s public relations people, but nothing close to official support.

    The “Boal and Bigelow had government backing” meme actually originated from the right, specifically with two Tea Party-friendly organizations called Judicial Watch and OPSEC.

    Both advanced the claim in August as part of a pre-election attempt to paint the movie as pro-Obama propaganda. Ironically, their never-backed-up assertions are now being recycled wholesale by people who want to paint the film as pro-Bush propaganda. Funny how those things work out.

  • Christoph Hochhäusler

    Hi Ignatiy, great article. I wonder if there is something that connects Bigelow’s work. From retro macho THE LOVELESS to racist BLUE STEEL to ‘no agenda’ war machine fascination in the last two films. What do you think? C

  • Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

    Thanks, Christoph.

    Bigelow has long characterized herself as someone who is interested in deconstructing genre and gender (two things that are interrelated, since the genres Bigelow seems to be interested in — action films, war movies — are archetypally “macho” ones). She certainly has the film-theory credentials, but I don’t think it’s quite that simple — or that Bigelow is really as impartial and academic as she likes to make herself out to be.

    “Fascination” is, I think, the right word. One of the reasons I like Zero Dark Thirty is that it combines the fascinations of earlier Bigelow films: the fascination with wartime settings where character psychology gets expressed through military protocol (K-19, The Hurt Locker) combined with the (very academic) fascination with the futurist idea of lived experience being turned into digital data (which is basically the plot of Strange Days, my favorite Bigelow movie).

  • Christoph Hochhäusler

    While I never quite liked STRANGE DAYS, even after mulitple viewing, I can see your point. This idea of “lived experience being turned into digital data” seems to haunt a number of contemporary films, but it rarely becomes as explicit as in DAYS.

  • Carson Lund

    Ignatiy, fantastic piece. I thank you and Glenn for setting the record straight about this film. When I first saw this well before all the Greenwald nonsense, it never even crossed my mind that “propaganda” and “pro-torture” would come up. Like you, I find it an exceptional drama, and very much a contemporary, even futurist, film as you suggest. For me, Fincher was a reference point, particularly ZODIAC.

  • Jack M

    You just completely blew this one out of the water and helped me ground my thoughts on the film. A really great essay!

  • Sam Fathers

    This is a great piece, man. I saw the film last night and it made quite an impression on me. The media backlash is unsurprising and only serves as confirmation of a very sad trend, which is that American audiences have no idea how to process a work of art responsibly and objectively. The seemingly instinctual need of members of the media to politicize a film which is almost anti-politic is frustrating as all hell. Great work.

  • Robert

    @Sam,

    I hesitate to generalize it to all Americans (I think the media/CIA is making a bigger stink about it than audiences are) but I agree with your comments about responsibility. Everyone is just pointing fingers and reducing the movie to a pro/con argument that is frustrating to watch.

  • Lev David

    @ Mac: The filmmakers didn’t have government backing. They chose not to seek it.

  • Kara Jacobi

    Notes on Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s “The Monitor Mentality, or A Means to an End Becomes an End in Itself: Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty”
    1) IV’s first paragraph reads: The protagonists of Zero Dark Thirty debate logic and theory. They are less spies and more espionage critics; they take copious notes, trade interrogation DVDs, and analyze their targets’ actions in terms of intention and authorship. Everything is founded on some kind of theoretical framework. Everything can be intellectualized. “We don’t deal in certainty,” one CIA operative says, “we deal in probability.”
    I do not recall any logic and theory debates, I do recall a lot of time spent with interrogation videos. Although if they do debate logic and theory then that would mean they are perfectly capable of self-critique, which would make them much more than post-human information processors (which is how IV characterizes them in the majority of his review).
    I think it’s quite possible to read this first paragraph as a kind of self-reflexive exercise. With just a few edits, the first paragraph reads: “…they take copious notes, trade … DVDs, and analyze their targets’ actions in terms of intention and authorship. Everything is founded on some kind of theoretical framework. Everything can be intellectualized….”
    IV is describing Maya and her black ops team but (by simply deleting a few choice words) he could just as well be describing a group of film critics and their critical habits (and/or image addictions). Whether we are aware of our own theoretical frameworks or not and whether we examine them or not, we all operate within some kind of theoretical framework. And we also all tend to make choices and take actions based upon the probability of their success. So, although I must credit IV with a bold opening salvo, I don’t believe he has really zeroed in on the main topic of this film. What he has zeroed in on with that opening paragraph (and with that rather confusing title) is a rather familiar dystopian conceit. Following Dostyevsky’s and Kafka’s and Orwell’s lead, it is IV’s contention that Maya has no political will of her own and that she is merely a cog (a kind of black ops Joseph K.) in a vast dehumanizing bureaucratic machine and that no one in this overly-intellectualized network of critical thinkers has the power or will to resist the machine which is more real than any of the decentered beings who serve it. It is this dystopian conceit that will lead IV to compare Zero Dark Thirty, a few thousand words later, to another dystopian fantasy, Holy Motors. Although he will not go so far as to implicate himself and/or anyone else who spends countless hours staring at computer screens and video monitors in this vast post-humanist conspiracy.
    2) IV is never so deliberate as to just come out and say whether a film is any good or not, probably because that would make him sound like a reviewer and he thinks of himself as an essayist. Instead, what he does is offer a series of reflections and comparisons and the reader is free is to deduce from the accumulation of data whether or not IV enjoyed himself or not. And even then it is oft times difficult to say with any degree of certainty just what the data is telling us to think of the film (or films) under consideration.
    The proliferation of film blogs and the virtually endless variety of opinion now available online, perhaps more than any other single factor, attests to the unruly and unedited desultory ramble that is American thought. But regardless of this freedom (arguably brought about by digital technology), digital technology is still cast as the villain in a number of these online fantasy games (opinion dumps) that we call blogs. But with so many voices spread across so much virtual space, there comes a saturation point and we long less for freedom and the proliferation of plurality than for singularity of purpose and/or relevance. Zero Dark Thirty is not a film with an agenda, but it allows every blogger to examine their own agendas in relation to the national agenda c. 2001 and it allows them all a chance to put their own talents at the service of a larger cause. In IVs case the larger cause is not “to torture or not torture” but the shift from celluloid to digital.
    3) In the fifth paragraph of this review, IV compares Zero Dark Thirty to PT Anderson’s The Master (but this is not necessarily a compliment or a criticism, because if you’ve read IV’s review of The Master you know he both liked and disliked The Master—-he liked the first half and disliked the second half).
    He compares the two films because he claims both films are about “systems.” (So is Dangerous Method. So is Money Ball, but ok.) He spends a few short paragraphs trying to force a comparison that is not particularly useful nor insightful (in regards to either film). And he concludes this rather unfruitful comparison on a rather unfruitful note: “But though The Master is easily the more ambitious and accomplished movie in terms of filmmaking, Zero Dark Thirty is more accomplished in terms of drama; while its images are never as potent as The Master’s, it uses them more purposefully… “
    What does any of this mean exactly? Which film is he complimenting, if either? Or is he really finding fault with both films. I suppose I would translate the above as, “The Master is art but it’s not dramatic enough to be considered entertainment; Zero Dark Thirty is entertaining but it’s not ambitious nor sophisticated enough to be considered as art.” But are these kinds of but-is-it-art judgments meaningful, and, if so, in what way are they meaningful? Or do these kinds of observations just provide the reviewer with a chance to march out his own taste hierarchies? At the end of this paragraph IV seems to be trying to come to terms with the fact that The Master is indeed a powerful film, more powerful indeed than a black ops procedural/revenge thriller that deals with the most traumatic and most definitive event of our time, but he cuts off that thread before it can lead anywhere…. (like a re-evaluation of his review of The Master)……
    IV has an annoying habit of opening up new threads of conversation and then dropping them. The effect is that his essays read less like essays and more like information dumps (which, again, is perhaps a pitfall of having unlimited space and no editor).
    4) IV then spends a few paragraphs taking about Kathryn Bigelow’s use of montage in the opening sequence. It’s odd to even hear him mention her by name because it’s clear that he has very little respect for non-auteurs. He concludes with what could be construed as either qualified praise and/or as a criticism of Bigelow’s way of engaging her audience by getting them to identify with both the victims of a terrorist act and the detectives who seek to bring those responsible to justice: “The relationship created by this bit of montage—from 9/11 straight into “enhanced interrogation”—is significant to the film; with a single cut, Zero Dark Thirty posits the War on Terror as an outgrowth of national trauma. By extension, the viewer—or at least an American viewer—is made complicit.” This is by far the most concise and insightful passage in the essay. But this paragraph is unconnected to the rest of the essay. This paragraph contends that the film is not about Maya or Dan, but about our own reactions to terror and our own sense of what would qualify as a just response. But, again, IV does not develop this line of thinking. He’s much more attached to his conceit that the film is about bureaucracies and systems and processes. There is no room in this interpretation for Maya or anyone else to exercise a political will of their own, even though without her political will the hunt for OBL would have had zero chance of success.
    5) IV then spends a few paragraphs defending the film against the accusations, popular in the media at the time of the film’s release, that it “glorifies torture.” Unfortunately, IV does not make his case very well. He simply says that Bigelow presents torture in a “negative light” and assumes his word is good enough. But does the film present torture in a “negative light”? No. The power of the film is that it doesn’t condemn or condone torture, but that it simply presents the viewer with a series of images and leaves the moralizing to the people watching the film in the theatre or on their own private home monitors. And whereas IV views Maya in a negative light, as a person bereft of any inner life or purpose (without the manhunt)— I’d say that Bigelow purposefully leaves Maya undefined so that our opinion of her will not interfere with our ability to form our own impression of those images and how they were collected. We know she is driven, but that is all.
    IV’s main defense of the film, against those who would view it as a glorification of torture, is that Zero Dark Thirty is not about heroes but about people who spend their days studying video monitors—in fact he uses the fact that Maya spends her days studying video monitors to underscore her lack of identity and heroism. This interpretation is not generous to Maya or the film. Instead of allowing for the possibility of nuance and ambiguity, both in the character of Maya and in the films attitude toward its subject and subject matter, it eliminates both.
    Interestingly, it’s not until the very last paragraph of the essay that IV seems to detect any link between Maya’s profession and his own. In his second to last paragraph he compares Zero Dark Thirty to Holy Motors. It certainly would be interesting to compare Oscar and Maya (and Freddie Quell). But IV does not seem interested in developing this comparison —between three of 2012’s most interesting decentered subjects- in any meaningful/purposeful way. He simply mentions Holy Motors because he finds that both films express, “an ambivalent attitude toward digitization.”
    But what does this mean? (And, again, wouldn’t it be far more accurate to say that Zero Dark Thirty expresses an ambivalent attitude towards torture?) This kind of statement seems more like a dodge or an attempt to be evocative (or sound intelligent without really saying anything) than an attempt to say something useful and accurate about either of the films. Neither Zero Dark Thirty nor Holy Motors express “an ambivalent attitude toward digitization.” IV is the kind of guy who probably has much to say about the difference between celluloid and digital imagery but since neither Zero Dark Thirty nor Holy Motors discuss “digitization” it seems pointless to make such a claim.
    6) But even more confounding is his last paragraph where IV claims that the CIA turns OBL into “abstracted data.” I think what he might mean is that warfare is made palatable only when we turn our enemies into abstractions but that is not a result of “digitization,” that is something we have been doing for ages, long before digitization. Ideology is sufficient technology for performing that intellectual feat. I would argue the strength of the film is that it doesn’t present Maya or OBL or any of the torturers or tortured, hunters or hunted, as “abstracted data.” Neither Bigelow nor Maya turn anyone into “abstracted data.” That is what IV does. Zero Dark Thirty is not about a collective of dehumanized black ops specialists who dehumanize others in order to accomplish a task assigned them by a faceless bureaucracy; rather it’s about a collection of black ops specialists who each act according to their own rationale and who must choose to act or not to act with a limited amount of data. What you think Maya’s motives might be and what you think of what she directs the CIA to do is left for you to decide. I don’t know whether this film is art or not, but it is effective filmmaking not just because it is full of dramatic tension, but because it deals with morally complex material and respects its audience enough not to tell them what to think or how to feel about it.
    7) Reviews/essays are opportunities for writers to perform many roles (interpreter, cultural authority, spokesman for an art form) and they are opportunities for us to gauge which roles the writer plays well and which not so well. I think in this review/essay IV attempts to present himself as a rigorous thinker and cultural authority but in regards to matters beyond the purview of his expertise (which is “cinema”—his sole qualification being cinephilia) he comes off as disappointingly reductive.

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