Review by Ryan Wilson

Issues of truth and consequence surround Katherine Bigalow’s widely praised, widely criticized Oscar contender Zero Dark Thirty, easily making it the most controversial film of the year. But the movie also offers a most interesting conversation about the power of form and content in cinema, with the content here being torture and whether or not “enhanced interrogations” led to the death of Osama Bin Laden and the form being how Bigelow handles such brutal content as a director. Well before its release, several United States Senators announced their disapproval of the film’s form and content, accusing the movie of inaccurately depicting interrogations as well as being harmful to the image of the United States abroad. Hence the truth and consequences.

First to the truth. Just last week Bigalow released a statement claiming that to omit the torture would be dishonest. This of course raises a flag concerning how we view films like Zero Dark Thirty. Are they really meant to reflect the truth? Or are they composite pieces of truth, arranged to manufacture the best narrative effect on an audience? If you subscribe to the theory of realism, then your goal in a fiction film is to replicate reality as much as possible, keeping any editorial content away from how that content is shot. As a director adhering to realism, you don’t use any lighting or camera work that would manipulate how the audience views the event. The audience is challenged to weigh the content against its own conscience. Formalist theory contrarily doesn’t care about truth so much as the effect various forms can have on an audience, knowing full well that it’s manipulating perspective.

So where does Zero Dark Thirty fall on the realism/formalism spectrum? It’s not so easy. When watching the torture scenes, which are disturbing to be sure, Bigalow seems to want realism, which would explain her defense. She neither demonizes the interrogator nor the imprisoned terrorist. We simply see the most brutal treatment of a human being, and we’re left to weigh that in terms of our own consciences. Furthermore, the torture scenes in the film are almost separate events from the overall narrative, which becomes more formalistic as we move away from torture and the film becomes about the basic intelligence work that actually found Bin Laden.

Enter Jessica Chastain’s character Maya, who leads the CIA’s charge. Maya also needs some examination, because as she grows as a character throughout the film, Bigalow becomes more formalistic in terms of identifying with her. Maya’s striking red hair alone makes her stand out on the screen, and she’s shot, formalistically, looking like a badass, often wearing sunglasses and berating her male superiors for their ineffectual efforts to catch terrorists. Maya is actually a composite of several women that screenwriter Mark Boals was surprised to learn played significant roles in the intelligence community. So he wrote Maya not just as a tribute to their work but as a narrative device to tell his story. Bigalow approaches her with a sort of feminist zeal. Even when Maya is emotional in the film, she’s incredibly strong, and she’s most often described in the film, by men, as “a killer.” In the most formalistic Hollywood moment of the film, she puffs out her chest as the lone female in a state department meeting, introducing herself as “the motherFer who found this place,” referencing Bin Laden’s compound.

Then of course comes the climax, which is the raid of said compound. Here Bigalow wisely falls back to realism, letting us interpret the tensions and ethics of the attack ourselves. One can only imagine the hackneyed treatment of this scene with another director wanting to depict Seal Team 6 as a group of military supermen.

And yet the consequences of Zero Dark Thirty may be harmful, as those senators contended. The film doesn’t chest-thump about its content, but it’s also no piece of objective journalism either. Regarding torture in the film, Bigalow has stated that “depiction isn’t the same as an endorsement.” I would agree more if her form adhered to the realism that bookends the film, but by identifying too much with her protagonist and following Maya’s narrative arc, Bigalow goes beyond mere depiction; the film identifies and empathizes with a character willing to do anything, including torture, to defeat terrorism. Many audiences will agree with such unrelenting patriotism without needing to see Maya’s manhunt. Other audiences will not agree and will see Bigalow’s forced perspective through Maya’s character.

Most films, by the way, ping-pong between formalism and realism in terms of form and content, but when you have content as sensitive as Zero Dark Thirty, the form is that much more important in understanding the multiple messages sent through the film, as well as those meanings superimposed by audiences. Whether or not you approve, Zero Dark Thirty is an amazing specimen for studying how and why cinema matters.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2013