As a political junkie, I’ve had Zero Dark Thirty on my must-see list since I first watched previews of it. When I finally had the chance to see it, at a Sunday matinee showing, the theater was packed. And any doubts that Kathryn Bigelow’s directing was less than stellar were immediately put to rest. The movie opens with about a full minute of darkness, over which audio clips of 911 calls from September 11, 2001, are played. No scenes of destruction are needed — the sounds alone are enough to bring back memories of the day. The decision to not show any images is, I think, indicative of Bigelow’s restraint as a director. As the movie reached its climax, the audience was completely silent, riveted by a story whose conclusion was already known.
So, as I left the theater, only one question ran through my mind: How in the world could Bigelow have been left out of the Oscar nominations for Best Director this year?
After all, it was just three years ago that Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker racked up tons of nominations and awards, including the Best Director Oscar. Bigelow became the first woman to win the award, and you couldn’t read any article about the Academy Awards without talk of the glass ceiling’s being shattered. All that talk makes it all the more shocking that Bigelow was shut out of the category this year. I loved the film, and so did most movie critics (it’s got a 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes as I write this). So what gives?
Some say Bigelow wasn’t nominated this year because the Academy is a boys’ club. This would be hard to demonstrate. There may or may not be extra obstacles facing women who seek to advance in the profession, but that doesn’t explain why an established director — and a previous Oscar winner — was denied a nomination for this particular film.
I really can’t find any reason other than politics. The film has raised significant controversy for its depiction of torture — specifically for its implication that methods such as sleep deprivation and waterboarding revealed key information that helped the CIA find and kill Osama bin Laden. Surprise, surprise: This is not an argument that flies with the Hollywood crowd. (Nor with many in Washington — Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain openly expressed concern that the film’s depiction of torture methods glorified those methods’ role in hunting down bin Laden.)
But this controversy obscures the real issue. Yes, many in Hollywood oppose the use of torture, but there is something more here, and it has to do with the very spirit of the First Amendment.
Bigelow herself does not condone torture; she refers to herself as a “lifelong pacifist.” In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, she notes that her depiction does not automatically translate into endorsement — to portray torture is not to support it.
That leads to what I think may be the most significant line in her op-ed: “On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices.” (Italics are hers.) Since the Vietnam era, the Hollywood modus operandi when it comes to political flicks has been to lambast U.S. government policies (e.g. Lions for Lambs, Rendition, Syriana). In these films, the political and moral positions taken were consistent with the views of those involved in production.
This, I think, may help to explain why Bigelow was snubbed for a Best Director nomination. Contemporary political films are all about getting up on the soapbox. Bigelow did not do that. She understood that it would be “illogical” to tell the story of how we tracked down bin Laden without including torture scenes.
It’s hard to believe that the Academy didn’t rob her of recognition because she decided to recount the story in this way. As Bigelow herself writes, “confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.” In short, while to misconstrue showing an action as supporting an action does not violate an artist’s First Amendment rights, it does contravene the ethic of tolerance that underlies the amendment and our nation itself.
If, indeed, a conflation of depiction and endorsement is why the Academy chose to deny her a Best Director nomination, an unfortunate precedent is being set. Perhaps adherence to certain points of view is more important to the Academy than good storytelling.
— Jennifer Marsico is a senior research associate at the American Enterprise Institute. Join AEI on Tuesday or attend via livestream for “Watching ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ with the CIA: Separating fact from fiction.”