Zero Dark Thirty Review: Exegesis
I stand by my review. But it is rather short, so perhaps it will be helpful to spell out what I was thinking in more detail.
Two things struck me coming out of the film. The first was the Silence of the Lambs parallels, right down to the night vision goggles and the creepy lair, and the way that, for me at least, the presence of those parallels “leveraged” a fuller response, since we’ve had far more time to understand and appreciate Silence. For awhile I thought that because so many reviews opened with this comparison, that the implications of it would start to be explored as well, but I’m not seeing that happen. The second was the emotional tone of my reaction to the ending, which gave me pause. I came out with an almost sublime sense of calm, space, silence. Naturally the first thought in reflection on that was: is this “catharsis” – a prettified revenge? All I can do is ask you take on trust that I am willing to entertain that hypothesis, both about the film and about myself, and yet it felt wrong, an interpretive easy way out. I had not felt avenged on the day that the killing occurred and I did not feel avenged revisiting that day in a darkened theater. That impression has persisted. The film is about revenge, but not in the way that one might think. Putting these preliminary thoughts together, I identified this sense of silence, calm and space that the ending induced with the silence of Silence. Maya wants to put an end to the screaming of the lambs, every bit as much as Clarice does, and Clarice’s desire is not about revenge. It is about protection, and something beyond protection.
People are troubled by the torture scenes, but the film is not engaging with the critics’ moral passions on this level at all. The notable fact about the torture scenes is not that they precede and suggest a causal connection to the ultimate success, as if the film was undoubtedly endorsing that success (is that assumption so very difficult for us to question?) because, honestly, on a first viewing, you forget about the torture scenes by the end (well, I did – make the most of it). Rather it is that they come immediately after the devastating opening of the audiotapes of the 9/11 victims, suggesting the other causal connection: these interrogations are the revenge. “Without skipping a beat” the cries of the dying turn into the cruelty of the interrogator. The question is not whether this cruelty “works” or not, since that would be to suppose it is motivated by a desire for what works. It isn’t. It is motivated by resentment over the insecurity created by what has gone before. And this kind of retail revenge goes nowhere. It is, if anything, a kind of ironic coincidence if anything useful comes of it later, the film seems to say.
So inflicting pain on people thought to be responsible for your insecurity goes nowhere. We must move on. The middle of the film, then, is dominated by detective work, cognition, the attempt to know something: an attempt to bring what is cloaked in darkness into the light of disclosure. As a means to an end, disclosure for closure? Well, in a sense, obviously, but knowledge has benefits of its own. For what is it we are observing? Detection, investigation, the pursuit of knowledge as a part of a “war on terror.” Many have commented on the oddity of that phrase, since typically one wages wars against nations and not techniques. But of course terror itself is only indirectly a technique. It is first and foremost a condition one can find oneself in. And now the phrase becomes unnervingly apt: we spent a decade in war with our own terror. Terror in the face of the destruction of “world,” terror in the face of non-existence. Maya (illusion) is our proxy in an inquiry into nothingness, in the hopes that through understanding it, we might master and perhaps even abolish it. Whether Maya wants to protect human beings in some non-specific sense, or her nation, or just herself, is immaterial. All of that, presumably. She wants to protect them from nothingness, the shock of the onset of nothingness, from knowledge of the abyss, from terror. That makes sense.
“You will never find him. He is one of the disappeared ones.” This caution from a detainee, offered wisely and genially, applies to her lead, Bin Laden’s courier, but the film trailers insinuate that it is about Bin Laden himself which, in a sense it is and isn’t. Some are troubled by the fact that the enemy is never given a point of view in this film, but this is not a moral choice so much as a logistical one. The enemy is death itself, and when Maya comes to identify Bin Laden’s body, and shortly thereafter is unable to respond to the question “where do you want to go?” with anything but tears, this is not about the hollowness of revenge judged from a moral perspective. Revenge is two hours behind us, abandoned. This is about the hollowness of taking safety for the absence of death, and taking a man who causes death for death itself. She sought to look into the face of death itself, and thereby conquer it, but all she got was another corpse. It should not surprise us that the death Bin Laden incarnates should slip away like a shadow leaving only a meaningless body behind.
We need the illusion, we need Maya. We cannot live in a world rocked by unpredictable explosions and sudden annihilation. We cannot come to terms with the ontological condition we find ourselves in without the luxury of at least some time and peace. And in a smaller sense, the protection is very real (this is another reason why the revenge interpretation is not quite right: the film shows how attacks keep coming and must be disclosed to be prevented, how nothing is entirely behind us, with all action directed merely at the past). In a larger sense, though, all that conquering the shadow’s current incarnation does is make us aware of the fact that one does not defeat the shadow by killing a man. Even if you come to know, locate and annihilate the man, you cannot know, locate or annihilate the shadow. It is disappearance itself; you will never find him.