Adams on Reel Women: The torture of Kathryn Bigelow
Photo: Everett Collection
The fall of Kathryn Bigelow's action thriller "Zero Dark Thirty," about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, aggravates me. Once the frontrunner, the ripped-from-CIA-dispatches drama, driven by the year's toughest heroine, single-minded spook Maya (Jessica Chastain), has apparently fizzled on the awards circuit.
The controversy about the "truthiness," to quote Stephen Colbert, of the film's depiction of recent history, and about whether it advocates torture, has done damage. A congressional inquiry? Oh, please!
Unlike a juicy sex scandal, this kind of political and intellectual controversy has a negative impact in the same way that criticisms of humanizing, rather than vilifying, Margaret Thatcher damaged last year's "The Iron Lady."
Many women -- but not the avid filmgoers in New York and Los Angeles -- are afraid to see "ZD30" or at least have shoved it down their must-see list behind "Les Misérables," "Argo," and "Silver Linings Playbook." Given how much movie tickets cost, and their few nights out, the vast majority of soccer moms and single women don't want to spend their discretionary dollars and date nights on "that waterboarding movie."
Bigelow, thanks to the controversy that has inspired a congressional inquiry, has lost the narrative thread she so carefully wove onscreen.
"Zero Dark Thirty" is already a success
Before we completely surrender to the notion that "ZD30" is dead in the water, remember its epic success. The academy has nominated the film for five Oscars, including best picture and best actress. According to Indiewire, the film has won 10 critics' associations best-picture awards and 14 nominations. Star Jessica Chastain won a Golden Globe and numerous other honors. It's also a financial success, having grossed $70 million domestically. Six weeks after it premiered, it's still No. 3 at the box office.
"Zero Dark Thirty" raises tough questions (and they're not multiple choice)
I resist entering the "torture" debate as defined by critics and defenders alike, because what elevated the film for me was that, like all of Bigelow's work, it did not tell me what to think. In her cover story in this week's Time magazine, Jessica Winter writes, "Like a white-on-white canvas, 'Zero Dark Thirty' has become a projection screen for the audience's perceptions and sympathies, taking on different colors and contours depending on what the viewer brings to it."
Unlike "Lincoln," which smoothed over the distant past and rallied emotions with an overbearing John Williams score, "ZD30" takes the biggest risk of all by inviting audience members to think and feel for themselves. It no more advocates torture, or "enhanced interrogation techniques," than a movie about Henry VIII condones the use of beheading in dealing with unwanted wives. Or than "Silver Linings Playbook" advocates that men with bipolar disorder should skip their meds and find health through a good woman and ballroom dancing.
Documentarian Michael Moore explains it all for you
Oscar-winning director Michael Moore ("Bowling for Columbine") defended Bigelow's embattled film in the "Huffington Post." And, as Winter explained in "Time," Moore saw what he wanted to see, in his case a movie that bashes George Bush and praises Barack Obama: "The main takeaway from 'Zero Dark Thirty': That good detective work can bring fruitful results -- and that torture is wrong."