I have made some remarks in social media concerning my critical objections to some writing by Glenn Greenwald concerning the movie Zero Dark Thirty. Much of the response to these sideline snipings has been along the lines of “put up or shut up.” My official review for MSN Movies has yet to be posted, and I would prefer to launch my arguments pertaining to Greenwald’s observations using that review as a platform, but it seems the die is cast. I cannot stress this enough: I have no expectation of changing Greenwald’s mind, earning his respect, or persuading his most loyal readers, what have you. But I have said that I think he’s lied about the movie. So what I’m going to address here, eventually, is why I think that. I ask any reader’s indulgence, as things are apt to get a little potentially laborious. It helps if you’ve already seen the film, is another thing I can’t stress enough.
Let me lay out how I look at Zero Dark Thirty. First of all, I see it entirely as a fiction. The great journalist Jane Mayer, in her New Yorker blog post objecting to the movie, cites its title card that says the story is “based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” She goes on to argue, “If there is an expectation of accuracy, it is set up by the filmmakers themselves.” Leaving aside for the moment the extent to which Zero Dark Thirty depicts events accurately (and even here it is arguable that the accounts of events from which Boal and Bigelow took off are entirely different from any number of official or unofficial constructions of the bin Laden pursuit narrative), when I’m watching a film in which actors are performing scripted actions in front of a very deliberately set-up camera, my takeaway from a title card such as the one Mayer cites is centered on “based on.” I am looking at a fiction, period. And it is from experiencing the work as a fiction that I draw my conclusions. (To tell you the truth, I personally never had much invested in the idea of bringing bin Laden to “justice” or not. Which is not to say that I did not take the 9/11 attacks somewhat personally, but I just never believed that bin Laden’s capture or death could do much to repair the damage of the attacks. Looked at another way, I didn’t believe that either bin Laden’s capture or death would have the effect of having made him “pay” for the 9/11 attacks.) So when a pundit tells me “Don’t Trust Zero Dark Thirty,” my response is, “Don’t worry, I don’t; at least not in the way that you are so kindly concerned about.” I’m not forming my impression of history around it, no. I deal with it as a discrete story and, when forming a critique of it, try to look at the way it’s told.
Second, when I’m looking at, and trying to figure out, a movie, that’s what I look at: the movie. Not interviews with the filmmakers. “It’s the singer, not the song,” the Rolling Stones once opined, and while in a specific way they might have been right what is missed is that the singer makes the song. Trust the tale, not the teller is a pretty hard and fast rule for me, and if Zero Dark Thirty cannot achieve its coherence and /or comprehensibility as a work entirely on its own, then it’s probably not even worth discussing. It would be disingenuous of me to claim that Greenwald and Mayer are playing “gotcha” in their citations of Boal and Bigelow and the varied inconsistencies that have emerged in their accounts of their methods and intentions. Those inconsistencies are there. But I didn’t go into the screening of the film carrying those with me.
And what I saw when I watched to movie was a very well-constructed narrative that, to my mind, was concerned with knowing and with the action taken as a result of knowing, or “knowing.” I saw a movie that subverted a lot of expectations concerning viewer identification and empathy, including the use of a lead character who in a conventional good-guy-versus-bad-guy scenario would raise objections to torture but who instead, a few queasy looks and pauses aside, rolls with it as an information gathering policy. In 1976 Robert Christgau wrote this about the first Ramones record: “I love this record--love it--even though I know these boys flirt with images of brutality (Nazi especially) in much the same way ‘Midnight Rambler’ flirts with rape. You couldn't say they condone any nasties, natch--they merely suggest that the power of their music has some fairly ominous sources and tap those sources even as they offer the suggestion. This makes me uneasy. But my theory has always been that good rock and roll should damn well make you uneasy.” I agree with Bob in all these particulars, and even more so if you substitute “good art” for “good rock and roll.” Zero Dark Thirty made me uneasy. Greenwald’s evocations of amorality are not entirely inapt. There’s a sense in which the film at least skirts outright amorality by refusing to assign any definite values to the various Xes and Ys in the equation that makes up its narrative. Its perspective, from where I sit, is sometimes flat to the point of affectlessness. There is an almost cynical mordancy in its depiction of events, and this to me is entirely clear from the film’s visual grammar (not to mention the entirely deliberate lack of ostensible multi-dimensionality in some of its characters, which moves Greenwald to make an unfavorable comparison of Jessica Chastain’s Maya to Claire Danes’ “let-me-show-you-my-tic-collection” Carrie on Homeland, which is pretty funny). But Greenwald sees none of this, and insists: “There is zero doubt, as so many reviewers have said, that the standard viewer will get the message loud and clear: that we found and killed bin Laden because we tortured The Terrorists."
I have neither the inclination or the mental space to expound on the sheer undifferentiated condescending shittiness behind the phrase “standard viewer.” What I would like to do, then, is make my own direct defense of what Greenwald dismisses as “the art excuse.” But I don’t think I can make a truly persuasive one, or at least not one that will persuade Greenwald or his most sympathetic readers, because it comes down to a fundamental disagreement on what Greenwald and myself actually saw in the movie. That is, he believes the movie ought to be held accountable for “political implications” (he calls them “implications” after devoting a considerable amount of verbiage on the insistence that the movie’s pro torture, C.I.A.-lionizing message is spelled out in neon). I believe that those implications as he describes them are not there. Sometimes they are not there as he describes them. (As one point, as an aside, he shows maybe more of his hand than is entirely prudent, writing, “Nobody is ever heard talking about the civilian-destroying violence brought to the world by the U.S.” The why-isn’t-this-movie-behaving-as-I-would-like-it-to whinge is the most reliable of philistine giveaways, but it has an extra dimension here.) And sometimes they are not there at all.
It’s tough to make this argument, or at least make it persuasively, without access to actual images from the film, or at least without my having made detailed notes on certain images, although having the images to display might be really useful. Then again, maybe not, because in his descriptions of the movie Greenwald does tend to shy away from specifics with respect to film grammar. Perhaps he’s doing visually literate people a favor, given how he handles other descriptions. I don’t consider him all that hot in terms of specifics regarding characterization. For instance, he writes, “Almost every Muslim and Arab in the film is a villainous, one-dimensional cartoon figure: dark, seedy, violent, shadowy, menacing, and part of a Terrorist network.” According to my notes and memory, there are not very many Muslim/Arab characters in the film, and almost all of them are detainees. Are they dark? Well, they are darkly complected. Are they seedy? They don’t look so great, but that’s because they’re locked in huts and cages and not given a lot of amenities. (There’s one guy who’s bribed with a Lamborghini, but I’d say he’s more tacky than seedy. You call something “seedy” and I think Akim Tamiroff in Alphaville.) Are they violent? As Greenwald actually points out elsewhere, mostly they have violence inflicted upon them, and it is not pleasant to watch. I myself thought the first detainee depicted to be a pretty sympathetic figure. Not necessarily admirable, but more human, or “human” than Jason Clarke’s swaggering, torturing character in that scene. Again, maybe it’s just me. Mayer cites a scene in the film in which “an elderly detainee explains that he wants to cooperate with the U.S. because he ‘doesn’t want to be tortured again.’” I am sorry that I do not have the name of the actor who played this character at hand, because I found him rather poignant.
I would be remiss though if I did not mention the notes of Stuart Klawans, film critic for The Nation, which Greenwald cites. Writing of the torture scenes Klawans says “the movie juices the audience on the adrenaline generated by these physical confrontations,” an assertion that’s arguable at best; then he goes on to state “and offers vicariously the sense of power enjoyed by the person holding the leash.” And I say that part is just plain wrong, and it’s here particularly that it would be useful to be able to do a shot-by-shot breakdown of the torture scenes. The first sequence begins with a shot from the back of the room, with the detainee hanging there by ropes. A door opens, three people, presumably men, enter noisily, and all wearing masks save the bearded one. The film grammar is such that the viewer flinches on entry; the sight of the detainee hanging there alone establishes his helplessness, the entry of the figures establishes threat. The torture scenes continue in this fashion and never ONCE do they invite the viewer to enjoy either holding or pulling the leash. I cannot speak to how Klawans, a seasoned and perceptive viewer, came to these conclusions, but I insist they are incorrect.
Whether or not the instances of torture actually happened, which for the purpose of assessing this fictional film does not concern me, or whether they “worked” and that their efficacy makes them right (a rather knottier question that I think the movie does want us to consider, but not with respect to forming a policy theory) I share my friend Tom Carson’s view about the function of the torture scenes: that rather than endorsing the barbarity, the picture makes the viewer in a sense complicit with it. A whole other can of worms. Where Jane Mayer complains that she “had trouble enjoying the movie,” I respectfully submit that perhaps the movie’s agenda is not entirely about enjoyment. “Maybe I care too much about all of this to enjoy it with popcorn,” she writes later. Implying that admirers of the film probably do not care enough. I submit, sadly, that if you think the only thing movies are useful for is enjoyable visual distraction while eating popcorn, maybe we don’t have too much to say to each other. But it’s easier to run this particular agenda if you only see Zero Dark Thirty as a product of “the entertainment industry.”
This ties in to the way that Greenwald lies about the movie. Here’s how. After laying out what he believes to be “the art excuse” and then laying out why it is wanting, which has something to do with his having gone on record as defended Homeland. He insists that any argument that the movie should not be “held accountable” for its politics is “pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, and ultimately amoral.” Give the man credit; he covers his bases, even if he declines to detail just how the movie ought to be “held accountable.”
Greenwald then, finally, avers that the art excuse doesn’t apply anyway because “to demand that this movie be treated as ‘art’ is to expand that term beyond any real recognition.” I give Greenwald credit: he stacks his rhetorical deck even more thickly than Bill O’Reilly does. (I was once on O’Reilly’s show, and he was laying in to Parker and Stone [this was before they came out as libertarians I guess] on account of them being “bad for the kids,” and he said to me “Come on, all these guys care about is making money, right?” which, you know, how are you supposed to answer that? You can’t say they’re NOT interested in making money, but once you step into that pile of shit that Bill’s placed in front of you there’s no way you’re going to get to any other, and actually salient, points.) I mean, start with the word “demand” which opens up a whole can of worms with respect to taking offensive action on the film’s behalf, and that as such is an affront to the obviously manifestly right-thinking Greenwald perspective. Well, as Robin Wood once said, a film is either a work of art or it is worthless. I don’t “demand” that the movie be treated as art; I just treat it as art, my own self. (I treat the first Ramones record as art, too.) I’m gonna leave the rest of that straw-man trap alone. Anyway, I’m really not concerned with what Glenn Greenwald thinks is art.
Greenwald continues: “This film is Hollywood schlock.” Again: not much to say to that, beyond “No it’s not,” and then, of course, and again, you’re already dead. Like, if I said “Glenn Greenwald’s writing isn’t ‘activist journalism,’ it’s whey-faced self-aggrandizing puling self-righteousness that holds everything and everybody save Greenwald and his claque to an impossible moral standard,” what could Greenwald propose in response, save “Says you, you moral monster?” Am I right?
But wait. Greenwald continues: “The brave crusaders slay the Evil Villains, and everyone cheers.” (I’m surprised he didn’t capitalize the “c” in “Crusaders:” his complaint goes back a LONG way.) And that is the lie. Of course his rhetoric is such that some may argue that I stretch in calling it a lie, but a lie is what I call it. The movie moment that his slaying-evil-villain-and-audience-cheering assertion conjures up for the “standard” viewer would be something like Hans Gruber’s fall from the near-top of Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard, or Aziz being blown up by his own missile at the climax of True Lies or Terry Molloy getting the shit kicked out of him at the end of On The Waterfront oh wait…scratch that last one. You get the idea. Now, those who have not seen the film may want to just stop reading around here if they’d like, but… I don’t believe that it represents a “spoiler” to reveal that the raid on the place where bin Laden is living, that is, the movie’s climax, represents anything even resembling a “evil villains slain” cinematic crescendo. Save for Alexander Desplat’s musical score, which is moody and ominous and very low-key rather than building-to-the-triumphalist moment, this is the scene in which the movie affects to purport its most “realistic” perspective. Much of it is depicted in forbiddingly lowlight, there’s a lot of stuff through night-vision goggles. The dominant sense is of organized activity that creates chaos that is then reigned in, so to speak, via slaughter. With the exception of one or two armed resisters, the “Evil Villains” who get shot down don’t even have a chance. Unless the viewer himself has a higher than average understanding of the details of how the raid unfolded, the viewer doesn’t even know which of the men shot down was bin Laden until the SEALS reconvene on the ground floor of the compound and put two and two together and fetch the body bag. In the meantime the viewer has been treated to depictions of fearful women and cowering children being herded about by shouting Americans. Where anyone can pull “everyone cheers” out of this mess is beyond me, but maybe if I see it with a paying audience I will find out. (I do not know what kind of audience Greenwald watched it with.)
So yes, I insist that in this specific instance Greenwald’s characterization of the movie is a lie. It is a purposeful lie, designed to get his reader to believe that people defending Zero Dark Thirty on artistic grounds are, at best, tired fools (“Perhaps film critics are forced to watch so many shoddy Hollywood films that their expectations are very low and they are easily pleased,” he muses with exemplary disinterest, before pulling the now standard “I’ve got a friend who works in the film industry who says I’m totally right” trick) and at worst, moral monsters. I suppose then that I can be forgiven for taking his puling whey-faced jibes a little personally. As for his incredibly ignorant and misleading summation of the critical controversy concerning Leni Riefenstahl, all I can say is that life is too short.
UPDATE: My review for MSN Movies, which I filed before even Frank Bruni's column appeared, is now up. I stand by it. Manohla Dargis makes some salient points beautifully, as she always does, in her NYT review. The great Larry Gross has some provocative perceptions at Film Comment's site. And Devin Faraci shows me more grace and kindness than I've ever shown him in commending my work in a piece about the film for Badass Digest, and I am grateful for his giving me a necessary lesson in humility, but more important, I think his perceptions on the film and his detailed descriptions combine for a wholly admirable piece of criticism. I thank him. Scott Tobias' AV Club review is valuable. Also, I am reminded that David Poland, commendably, got the ball rolling from our end with this piece.