"This film is based on real events." "This is a true story." "What follows is true."
It is curious how many movies based on historical events open with disclaimers touting something to that effect. Not, except in very few cases, "This film is based on real events, but it's ultimately a work of fiction." Not "This is kind of a true story." Not "What follows is true, but mostly in the Jean-Luc Godard 'cinema is truth' sense." Though I think discerning viewers have the good sense to separate truth from truthy fiction — or at least I hope they do — you can't argue that most biographical and historical films use their basis in real events as a selling point, and maybe even as a shorthand to importance. This really happened; therefore, it matters.
"Zero Dark Thirty" opens which just such a disclaimer, announcing that it is "based on firsthand accounts of actual events." And in the media, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter (and former journalist) Mark Boal have sold the film as much on its accuracy as its artistry ("Facts, Not Flash," a New York Times piece hailed last November). This uncomfortable relationship between fact and fiction is the subject of an excellent piece by Jeff Reichert at Reverse Shot, one of the best I've seen on "Zero Dark Thirty." Reichert spends some time on that disclaimer, and compares the film to another work of art about terrorism:
"This obsession with films getting as close to something as possible doesn’t often lead to great art. When Olivier Assayas, a cannier filmmaker than Bigelow, mounted 'Carlos,' a similarly scaled production dealing with global terrorism, his opening card noted the necessary fictionalization of events. This offered him the wiggle room to imagine the film’s best segments, those involving late-period Carlos, paunchy and dissolute, juggling his family and fading career as a global terrorist. Bigelow and Boal stick to their personality-free 'just the facts' approach as obsessively as their heroine sticks to her dogged pursuit of bin Laden."
Many of the harshest attacks on "Zero Dark Thirty," written by commentators who haven't seen it and politicians with personal agendas, feel unfair. They don't so much review the actual film as decry the torture-glorifying, government secret-spilling work they imagine it to be. As a result, most critics have dismissed these arguments on basic principle. Reichert, though, takes a more thoughtful approach:
"It’s become all too commonplace for critics to float above the fray, and praise works they find aesthetically valuable and politically questionable (a replaying of the old Leni Riefenstahl debate again), but is this l’art pour l’art stance any way to watch movies? Isn’t this just abdicating a crucial part of the critical act? Wouldn’t we rather our film writers be morally engaged viewers rather than diffident aesthetes? The morally engaged viewer doesn’t necessarily look to the film in question for simple affirmation of his or her viewpoints and reject opposing ideas out of hand. Rather, the moral viewer looks to cinema to encounter a host of perspectives, and can find pleasure in a variety of them so long as the art itself is well reasoned and internally sound. Especially in light of how the filmmakers have spoken about their work, the problem with 'Zero Dark Thirty' becomes less that it ends up making a forceful case for the efficacy of torturing human beings for national security — it’s that one can easily walk away from the film doubting whether Bigelow and Boal have even realized that this is what they’ve done."
Reichert's call for critics as "morally engaged viewers" is an interesting one. I think a good example of what he wants to see more of from critics would be this recent review of "The Impossible" by Devin Faraci. It calls the movie, a story of a white family surviving the 2004 tsunami in Thailand while hundreds of thousands of locals die all around them, "deplorable" (in the headline!) and also accuses director J.A. Bayona of milking tragedy for awards season buzz. At the very least, it doesn't abdicate final word to the reader.
Still, I'm not sure the reaction to "Zero Dark Thirty" is truly a case of writers looking for "simple affirmation of [their] viewpoints" — unless all the critics who like the film support the use of torture (this one certainly doesn't). Though Reichert would disagree, I think "Zero Dark Thirty" is pretty well reasoned and presents a rather effective glimpse of the human (and, yes, moral) sacrifices made by our country in the last decade. The movie troubled and saddened me and made me weigh the choices made by my government in my name — which, unless I'm misunderstanding Reichert's point, is part of what being a morally engaged viewer means.
Read more of "Desert of the Real."