' ' Cinema Romantico: When Vengeance Rings Hollow

Thursday, September 11, 2014

When Vengeance Rings Hollow

Since 2007 I have chosen on or around the anniversary of 9/11 to re-watch Paul Greengrass's “United 93”. Yet this week, for reasons I’m not sure I could have articulated in the moment I made the decision, I reached past the “United 93” DVD for Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” instead. In retrospect, this decision was a result of my bad mood. I think a lot of people are in bad moods these days. There is so much shit in so many corners of the world that is so profoundly fucked up that if I really stop to try and consider it I find that I can’t even fucking breathe –and no, I will not ask you to “pardon my French.” Because fuck that. The fucking world is on fucking fire. And I felt fucking pissed off. And so I guess that as an extension of this mood I didn't really desire the hope of “United 93” (and yes, in that indescribably intense concluding sequence when the passengers fight to take back the plane that’s specifically what I feel – hope). I desired……

Vengeance is the word I’m supposed to employ. I mean, isn’t that what “Zero Dark Thirty” is all about? Wasn’t that the purpose of our ten year odyssey to track down Osama bin Laden, pop a cap in his ass and hurl his remains into the sea? To have our vengeance for his masterminding of the most significant attack ever conducted on American soil? Isn’t that why the film opens with actual recordings taken from inside the Twin Towers before they fell? There are those who would argue the film does not suitably address the "why" nor suitably address America's overall involvement in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but such arguments fail to understand the film's contention that bin Laden was the predominant symbol of 9/11. His death would supply vengeance. Then we could all go back to watching Youtube in peace.

One of the significant knocks levied against Jessica Chastain’s protagonist, Maya, based on a real life CIA agent, was a lack of characterization. No home life, no loved one, no friends, no beers with the boys, no pillow fights, no diatribes about how underrated Juliana Hatfield is. It’s a knock I’ve addressed before as absurdly irrational. The point is her lack of characterization. Is there anything more profound than the utter un-profundity of this shot? 

That’s her. Nothing. No one. A tall boy and a glob of candy on a non-descript couch. Hollowed out to the point of her obsession with finding Osama and nothing else. And in that way, she also becomes emblematic of America’s obsession with vengeance, with finding and punishing bin Laden in the wake of 9/11. David Thomson, my favorite film critic, compared it, unfavorably, to something born of John Wayne jingoism. Now I am rather notoriously not a John Wayne fan. In fact, I was recently at a film exhibit and I quite purposely walked right past the John Wayne display. But I also don’t entirely disagree with Mr. Thomson.

In his movies, Wayne always possessed a “pathological absence of self-doubt mak(ing) everything all right in the end.” That’s a phrase the critic Daniel Pinto used to negatively describe the character of Maya in his own “ZDR” review. He’s right about the pathological absence of self-doubt, which is a trait that Maya the character (“I know how much certainty freaks you guys out”) and Chastain the actress play straight to.

This pathological absence of self-doubt also manifests itself in the torture sequences. It manifests in the movie, of course, in the way that Maya’s initial hesitancy toward it gives way to an almost disturbingly matter-of-fact ruthlessness. “You're not being fulsome in your replies!”

But it also manifested itself in the conversation had by so many around the movie. Was it pro-torture? Was it anti-torture? Were its depictions of torture accurate or imbalanced? EVERYONE had an opinion and EVERYONE’S opinion was RIGHT (i.e. pathological absence of self-doubt). And look, when it comes to the subject of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, I would contend it’s virtually impossible to know the whole truth. The government and its representatives can assert anything they damn well please, but then the government asserted they weren't spying on us until they admitted that, yeah, well, they were. Discerning the proclivity of torture in the pursuit and how much information that torture yielded until everyone involved truly comes clean (which they won't) is a fool’s errand. Perhaps the significance of torture as argued by “Zero Dark Thirty” is overstated compared to the truth stowed in a briefcase chained to some Langley operative’s wrist but torture was employed. That much we know. And the question Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal seem intent to to ask is whether or not it makes – to re-borrow Mr. Pinto’s phrase – “everything” (as in, torture) “all right in the end” simply because it aided in nabbing, “for God and country”, al-Qaeda’s #1 douchebag?

Thomson writes that Maya “is the moral authority at the end of the film, surveying the corpse and nodding, as if to imply, ‘Mission accomplished.’” I respect Mr. Thomson more than any critic alive but have no earthly idea what he was watching. She nods, yes, but how he extrapolated an implication of ‘Mission accomplished’ from the manner in which Chastain nods is utterly beyond me. That nod is partly disbelief for having finally seen the mission through, but it’s so much more – it’s doubt. It’s fear. It’s Bigelow and Boal consciously setting her up this way to take her to the end point of the journey, to the point where her logistical and moral certainty and her pathological absence of self doubt suddenly run up against pointlessness. She boards the military plane. The pilot asks “Where do you want to go?”

Her only answer is tears, and as empty as all the vengeance felt watching those tears in 2012, it felt, in the aftermath of the last few months, even more empty. Two years later and we still have no idea what it really meant or where we really want to go.

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