High Information/Low Interpretation in Bigelow’s yellow journalism comic strip
Zero Dark Thirty opens during the second age of yellow journalism which is the same as in the 1890s when the press shamelessly sought readership through sensation, innuendo and jingoism (its news pages were indistinguishable from the lurid, tinted pages of comic strips).
This comic-strip account of U.S. agents hunting down and killing Osama Bin Laden in revenge for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center has received both praise and condemnation due to the media’s confused ethics and aesthetics. Through yellow journalism’s prevailing biases (the oligarchic will of conglomerates seeking to control the way people think) news and history get distorted into propaganda.
“High information readers” and “High information viewers” consume limitless propaganda while thinking themselves “engaged,” “enlightened” or Internet “smart.” This includes film critics who award Zero Dark Thirty and those pundits and politicians, such as Senators John McCain and Diane Feinstein, who disparage it. Both sides want confirmation of their feelings about Obama’s unmentionable war on terror; they see in the film what they want to find.
Yellow journalism’s routines have stunted their interpretive abilities but director Kathryn Bigelow just wants to practice her craft. Zero Dark Thirty partly resembles the semi-documentary tradition once famously practiced by 1940s producer Louis de Rochemont. Because we like to think we’re smarter today than Rochemont’s obvious socially-conscious dramas (Lost Boundaries, The Fighting Lady, Booomerang, House on 92nd Street) Bigelow’s skills end up serving a cynical topical awareness and polarized sense of urgency.
A bigger budget and a more definite subject improves on the muddled “war is a drug” pathology of Bigelow’s now-overrated The Hurt Locker. She almost personalizes this story, using her first female action-hero since the 1990 Blue Steel. As played by Jessica Chastain, mostly in mime, this undercover cipher hides her political feelings behind job-proficiency. Calling herself a CIA “motherfucker” she gets closer than the all-male The Hurt Locker to articulating Bigelow’s trademark interest in the androgynous erotics of violence.
Chastain’s character’s enigmatic patriotism that will please or irritate viewers depending on their politics. Her post-IED comment (“I believe I was spared for this mission”) suggests a messianic devotion that comes out of nowhere. Zero Dark Thirty gives no sense of her background or who she really is which vitiates the film’s emotional effect, unlike Bigelow’s Soviet submarine movie K-19: The Widowmaker which was richer, more effective storytelling.
Zero Dark Thirty is unambiguous action-filmmaking. Yet its vague politics are vexing. Throughout the long Bin Laden manhunt, it takes on the bland procedural manner TV viewers favor, not the morally-defined action of post-9/11 films like Munich, From Paris with Love, the Taken series and War of the Worlds which moved audiences to reassess politics, patriotism and global relations. Bigelow’s action emphasis, inflated to epic length, recalls insincere post-9/11 agit prop like Syriana and Rendition. She gainsays connection between killing and politics through a mind-numbing series of searches, bribes and attacks staged no differently than generic horror movie tropes, only set in Middle Eastern black site locations and government offices. (Her gotcha climax quotes Silence of the Lambs.)
Hardly more superficial than Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and the sloppy Argo, this, unfortunately, is no better. Except when Seal Team Six arrives to deal Bin Laden’s death blow: they’re as amusingly beefcake-sexy as the surfers in Bigelow’s best film Point Break. Sensualizing violence doesn’t clarify the political ramifications–or, as some have charged, the political truth–of the Bin Laden killing or the purported (off-screen) funeral rites and burial at sea. Plus, sexy warfare lacks the wit and complexity of Godard’s 1960 torture essay Le Petit Soldat.
In one of the CIA pow-wows where the amped voice level is close, loud, intimate, forceful, an agent declares “We don’t know what we don’t know. It’s tautology.” That’s also Bigelow’s position on the history she recounts. Her cool distance from confirming facts makes Zero Dark Thirty a tautology, perfect for yellow journalism’s “high information” dupes.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair