Let’s lay things down sharply: “Zero Dark Thirty” is pro-torture propaganda. The director Kathryn Bigelow, writer Mark Boal (who are also the film’s producers), and lead actors Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke have all come out in ill-informed and illogical defense of their film. They misunderstand the critique of the film as endorsing torture as only responding to their depiction of torture. But the film doesn’t condone torture because it visualizes torture. In fact, its depiction of torture, and in particular, waterboarding, is actually too softballed in this age of wild filmic violence—there are worse, more disturbing scenes in a “Die Hard” film. To make a critique of torture, these scenes ought to be in at least Abel Ferrera land. Furthermore, the film’s lead character participates in torture with no verbalized or bodily remorse; it is clear that she believes in its efficacy. In fact, in two separate sequences, the screenplay actually puts into words this sentiment: a detainee practically begs the inquisitors to ask him questions, to which he vows he will answer truthfully because, he says, he wants no more torture; a CIA top gun informs his boss that all the information about the location of Osama Bin Laden (which turn out to be correct) were “obtained from detainees.” To make things worse, Bigelow and Boal have contradicted themselves, condescendingly brushing off criticism with the tired old claim that film is fiction, but claiming, both in interviews and in the opening title card of the film itself, that the film is “journalistic”—that it is part non-fiction created from classified information. A fiction with claims and ambitions to be political fact is creeping fast toward propaganda.
It is difficult to think about aesthetics of a film that is in fact, not a piece of art but propaganda. Thus it was hard to see one of my sentimental favorite actresses, Jennifer Ehle, show up in “Zero Dark Thirty” as a CIA agent. To see my beloved 90s Lizzie Bennett serving the cause of a neo-Leni Riefenstahl! But I suppose the mark of a truly great actress is her ability to reveal the limitations of the filmic material with the force of her body. It is work that is not done by most of the cast. Take for instance, its lead actor. Jessica Chastain, as CIA agent Maya who says she “will kill Bin Laden,” doesn’t so much interpret a role as embody every patriarchal quality that is currently valued in America: bullheadedness, cultural and historical myopia, emotional numbness. Her Maya is sorority girl as American hero. The scenes in which she displays her supposed toughness—screaming shrilly at her boss, referring to herself as a “motherfucker” in front of a government top dog—are laughable. It is hard to take this character seriously when her method of getting what she wants is to whine as loudly as possible, and even more so when she discusses serious matters in a Delta Delta Delta Can I Help Ya Help Ya Help Ya vocal cadence. Why have so many people claimed her as a feminist hero? A feminist is not a just a human being with a vagina. A feminist is someone who uses her mind, soul, and body to exert revolutionary force against patriarchal traditions. A character like Maya is no different from Margaret Thatcher, Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann, women who have claimed personal agency and institutional power by becoming lapdogs of the patriarchy.
Ehle’s character is distinguished as an opposite of Maya: she seems at once more pragmatically focused and more easily distracted. The pragmatism is a matter of representation; it’s written in the dialogue (she tells Maya not to obsess over Bin Laden and concentrate rather on preventing terrorist attacks). It’s the quality of scattered distraction that Ehle herself brings to the part with her physicality. Ehle’s trademark is her eyes, which for a white actress are vaguely Asiatic, and always look like they are laughing. She used them to create an iconic character of steely logic and wary playfulness in “Pride and Prejudice” (1995). In “Zero Dark Thirty,” the laughing eyes dart frenetically, in direct contrast to the often unblinking, concentrated (and creepy) stare of Chastain. Ehle’s costumes also mark the contrast between her and Chastain. While Chastain stays in dark pantsuits and neutral tops, and no jewelry, Ehle wears pearls, skirts, stilettos, chiffony and ruffly blouses, and a variety of hairdos (loose waves, retro beehive bun, and a bouncy Gidget-esque ponytail in her final scene). I’d contend that Ehle is the film’s sole embodiment of femininity. When she lands a highly-prized informant, she prepares for the meeting by baking him a cake! The scene in which Ehle is icing gleefully is a treasure. She seems to be getting ready for a date with a lover. There is something simultaneously disturbing and enchanting about a CIA agent who views an enemy contact as a romantic interest. At least that is the way Ehle plays her: waiting for the contact to arrive, she is all furrowed brows and jittery jibbering. We feel anxious for her: what if she gets stood up on prom night??!! She’d have to leave her cake out in the rain!! When she sees him finally approach, those black eyes of hers laugh again, and well up with happy tears. She asks the security guys to stand down at the gates because “This is special.” The special date, though, begins to feel ominous, and all the more so because Ehle’s excitement and giddiness is so palpable. We know something bad will happen, and it does: the contact turns out to be a suicide bomber. As he gets out of the car into Ehle’s welcoming, open eyes, the film pulls back into a wide aerial shot and: BOOM!! Ehle’s punishment (her “Just Desserts,” quipped my partner sympathetically) is for her femininity. The lesson, in line with a particularly American patriarchy, is that femininity should be reserved for the personal realm. In work, especially if your work involves matters of state and foreign relations, you must be as non-gendered as possible; hyper-masculine aggression if you must. Ehle’s character doesn’t so much use her femininity in her dealing with the enemy as she simply is feminine. The female character that performs femininity in high-level intelligence work must die, while the one who performs not so much masculinity but anti-femininity, is rewarded with heroic accolades. This pedagogy against femininity, though, is again purely in the realm of representation: the screenplay sketches out the outlines of two opposing female “types.” But it is in performativity, the actresses’ wearing those outlines, that the real lessons are learned. Ehle endowed her character with her individual and charming femininity, and thus sacrificed her remarkable perfomative ability to Bigelow’s violent propagandistic intent, just as surely as her character sacrifices herself for her country’s cause. I never cry out at scenes of violence in films, but when that bomb went off and I knew that “Jennifer Ehle” had indeed thrown herself onto the landmine of patriarchy, I cried out. The bomb sound was so loud that it muted my lone loud cry.