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While I’m Waiting For Zero Dark Thirty

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I’m sure I’ll be returning to these essays once the movie makes it to the provinces, but until then I will note that the debate has inspired some brilliant writing from Glenn Kenny and Manohla Dargis.  (I particularly endorse Glenn’s point about the “standard viewer” fallacy.)

I think the prima facie problems with some of the critcism can be seen in this Jane Mayer post than Glenn links to:

But whether torture “worked” was far from the most important question about its use. I’ve seen the film and, as much as I admired Bigelow’s Oscar-winning picture “The Hurt Locker,” I think that this time, by ignoring the full weight of the dark history of torture, her work falls disturbingly short. To begin with, despite Boal’s contentions, “Zero Dark Thirty” does not capture the complexity of the debate about America’s brutal detention program. It doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned, even though the Bush years were racked by internal strife over just that issue—again, not just among human-rights and civil-liberties lawyers, but inside the F.B.I., the military, the Justice Department, and the C.I.A. itself, which eventually abandoned waterboarding because it feared, correctly, that the act constituted a war crime. None of this ethical drama seems to interest Bigelow.

Here’s the thing: in not wanting to show they complex internal debate about torture within the executive branch, Bigelow (whatever the results, which I still can’t evaluate) is following a very sound instinct. Obviously, this debate is of immense moral and historical importance, for which reason I can’t recommend Mayer’s The Dark Side strongly enough. But trying to do in a fiction film what Mayer’s 400 page nonfiction book does is almost certainly a terrible idea. Putting various position papers about issues of the day into the mouths of characters is about as sure a path to bad art as there is. As I mentioned when this first came up, Robert Redford already made the movie that some of Bieglow’s critics want her to have made about the Iraq War, and the only way it could have been worse is if it had been directed by Joel Schumacher. And of course there’s The Newsroom, also motivated by a desire to tell the audience what to think about national issues of undeniable importance, and an aesthetic train wreck that also tells any reasonably well-informed person nothing they didn’t already know. I don’t think these are exceptions; I think they’re the rule. Art is not apolitical and often carries political insights (good or bad), but these are best accomplished by implication rather than by polemic. The philistine reduction of art to politics generally leads to bad art and useless politics.

To be clear, I’m not making a “you can’t criticize Bigelow for not doing things differently” argument. I’m making a “I’m reluctant to tell a filmmaker to make a film in a way that has about a 99% chance of producing terrible hackwork” argument.

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