Most of the conversation these past few weeks about Kathryn Bigelow's masterful new film Zero Dark Thirty (and yeah, I already tipped my hat there with that "masterful") has been focused on the back and forth about whether it is pro- or anti-torture. I won't go into the specifics, I feel as if they've already been laid bare ad nauseum and the movie's only out properly in limited release today.
What strikes me about the conversation is just that right there - the conversation! Were we having this conversation in any meaningful way before this movie arrived? Is this not a conversation we ought to be having? I don't mean the movie, specifically - I mean about torture. I mean whether it works or not, and whether that even matters. Oh sure scattered clumps of political wonks were having that conversation, and people like myself who pay attention to political wonks were seeing that conversation, but what Kathryn Bigelow has done has plunked that tremendously important conversation right down in front of a big ol' audience in the guise of a tremendously effective thriller-of-sorts and said, hey, look at this shit. We did this. And it's fucking terrible.
Personally I think the people who criticize the movie for not taking a stand do a disservice to the power of those scenes, and to Bigelow's sleight of hand - show don't tell, y'all. She has chance after chance to throttle the edge right off of this sucker, and she sticks to her guns. She could have made things easy for us, given us shots out of the latest Michael Bay epic, slow-motion shots of sun-dappled soldiers and Coca Cola signs, while big-dicked guitars pounded Lady Liberty. What she gives us instead is a cold-as-ice cipher swaddled in black sunglasses and smart cottony seemingly too expensive for her pay-grade sweater-shirts that's not gonna give us an inch.
And god I drank it right up. How refreshing this film's calculating coldness is! I kept trembling with fear we'd get a scene where Jessica Chastain would telegraph too much, would be given some sordid slash cloying moment of affection, of history, of impossibly Hollywood-ian "Here lay my soul!" penetration, and she and Bigelow up-end the whole machinery - Maya's emotional collapse at film's end is the biggest most beautiful fuck you of all! I have no idea why she was crying! And that was some riveting shit!
Oh I can fill in the blanks. I can fill them in in ten different entirely satisfying ways. It's not that the film shirks its responsibilities. But it trusts its audience, and it believes in the power of us to get our little minds up in there and manage it. Indeed it won't have it any other way. It's exhilarating, and difficult, and not-nice film-making at its finest. You simultaneously want to cheer and to vomit, and if you ask me that's precisely where you should be watching this.