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Michael Bettencourt
Zero Dark Thirty

February 2013

The Marvelous Maria Beatriz and I went to see Zero Dark Thirty, drawn more by obligation than anything else (i.e., "to be informed citizens, we should go see this movie which has generated such controversy...").  I was also marinated in the back-and-forths pre-and post-release about the torture scenes and the degree to which the movie sanctions torture, authorizes barbarism, etc.

That latter discourse was important and was unavoidable (and I would suspect sought-after, in a subterranean fashion, for the marketing and PR campaigns).  The movie tells a lie about the connection between information extracted by torture and the discovery of bin Laden's presence in Pakistan, and that needed to be exposed, since it was feared (rightly) that most people, uninformed about the whole torture controversy regarding the Bush and Obama administrations, would walk away from the movie with an uncritical, and uncriticized, view of the subject.

But now, having seen the movie for myself, I'm sort-of thankful to Kathryn Bigelow for making it, though (as will be seen) probably not for reasons that would please her.

First, though, an artistic critique.  Zero Dark Thirty is a badly made movie: plodding, ill-written, ill-acted (except for Mark Strong, who always brings power to anything he does) — and did I say plodding?  The video-gamish attack on the bin Laden compound was not worth the ride, and it ends with a representation that, to this day, still stands unproved: that in fact the person they shot and then dumped in the sea was bin Laden.  A court case is in play right now about releasing the evidence, and it has to be at least a little passing strange that the Obama administration, so quick to tout its terrorism-busting bona fides during the election, balks at showing the world the evidence.  (Basis for a new movie.)

But on to the more interesting stuff.

One reason to thank Bigelow for making this piece is that it's a rare time when the citizens of the United States, apparently with the okay of the state, get to see their brutal empire-focused ideology buck naked. Usually it's all tarted up in patriotic garb or fogged over by urgency, but in this case, we get to see the United States empire in action -- we get to see what it does in our name and with our money.

Second, and connected, we get to see how club-footed and inept our empire is.  Despite overwhelming advantages in technology and cash, the giant is outfoxed and outrun in the most low-tech of manners, and its vaunted enhanced interrogation program got nothing of any worth while it was a low-level admin assistant, digging through old information, who brings Maya, the agent in charge, the clue that leads her to her end-game.

Third, it exposes just how beholden we are in telling stories to the poisonous clich├ęs about American character and individualism and our cowboy mentality about how we can force reality to bend to our will when we put our American mind to solving a problem.  The movie is infiltrated with John Wayne-esque reach-outs (witness Mark Strong standing in the strong sunlight of the hangar door in his tight-fitting khaki pants, blue jacket, and slung-back shades) and homages to the posse of guys rounded up to do the good work in an evil world (what is Seal Team Six but another incarnation of the Magnificent Seven, with cooler gear?). And Jessica Chastain as the tough broad, who can out-man the men and swear with the worst and the best of them but who cries at the end when she's asked where she wants to go and has nowhere to go -- as if this is the only template American artists have for creating a female character.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, it shows how our state is engaged in a war that it pretends it understands but doesn't really.  Getting bin Laden a decade after the fact of 9/11 ended up meaning nothing — it won nothing, it stopped nothing, it solved nothing, it ennobled nothing.  After trillions of dollars and thousands of lost lives, the United States is economically weaker, less respected, and manifestly incapable of figuring out how to solve its own fate.  If the terrorists' intent was to weaken the tiger, they have succeeded.

So, thank you Kathryn Bigelow for unintentionally opening up a window onto the crappiness that is the war on terror prosecuted in our name and with our money.  Now, get out of this business of making propaganda pieces for the government, lest you be branded as the war on terror's Leni Riefenstahl, and go make a good movie again.

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©2013 Michael Bettencourt
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

Read his theatre reviews in Scene4's Qreviews
For more of his Scene4 columns and articles, check the Archives
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