The hunt for bin Laden could make a great film. This isn’t itby Tom Streithorst / January 24, 2013 / Leave a comment
Kathryn Bigelow has always had a talent for violence. In Near Dark (1987), redneck vampires terrorise a dive bar. In Blue Steel (1989), Ron Silver gets aroused fondling a female police officer’s gun. In Point Break (1991), surfer/bank robber Patrick Swayze sets a gas station on fire while wearing a Ronald Reagan mask and eventually rides a wave so big it kills him. Even her first short film, made in 1978 when she was still a grad student, consisted of two men pummelling each other while two professors discussed the semiotics of brutality in voiceover. It sounds a bit art school but the film was energised by her instruction that the actors actually beat each other up. No phoney stage fighting for Bigelow.
Thirty-five years later, her interest in aggression remains unsated. For the first half hour of Zero Dark Thirty, her new film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, we watch a half naked young Arab man get strung up, hit in the face, waterboarded and shoved into a small box. He begs for mercy but gets none from his CIA captors. They apply their techniques dispassionately. When he doesn’t answer a question, our heroes dunk his head under water, blind him with bright lights, get their goons to beat him, play loud music, insult his sexuality, make him soil himself. When he doesn’t break they beat him some more. Finally, in a quiet moment, with a bit of kindness over a bowl of hummus, the lead interrogator tricks the terrorist into giving up the name of one of bin Laden’s couriers, which which ultimately leads to the discovery of bin Laden’s hiding place.
I found the first 30 minutes of the film exhausting and distasteful. I enjoy movie violence as much as the next guy but torture (or enhanced interrogation techniques, as the CIA likes to call it) doesn’t have the anarchic pleasure of a cinematic car chase or bar fight. It is oppressive, ugly and unpleasant. Bigelow has been attacked both in the media and by her Hollywood peers for these scenes but insists her graphic depiction was not intended as approval. She says she is just reporting what happened and that criticism of torture in the film be directed instead at those who ordered it.