Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Month: May, 2015

Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

What is the goal of cinema? Should films strive to reproduce reality, or are they illusory manifestations of their auteurs‘ vision? This is, arguably, the classic debate in film theory, eliciting contributions from thinkers as diverse as Sergei Eisenstein, Sigfried Kracauer, André Bazin, and F.E. Sparshott. Of course, one reason why the discussion persists is that it defies easy answers. Recently, in my course on “Theology and Film,” I asked students to weigh in on this question, paying particular attention to a film we had studied during the semester. Many of them chose either Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), and, despite the differences between these two films, they found support for either side of the debate. Sure, Malick’s attention to the natural world suggests a realistic, “open” style of filmmaking, but, then, his well-known use of voiceover is only possible through editing technique (though whether or not that makes it less real is another question). Likewise, Nolan’s employment of special effects, not to mention his embrace of the superhero genre, implies a cinematic experience abstracted from reality; and yet, for all of that, does not The Dark Knight confront a number of pressing “real-world” issues, from the post-9/11 fear of terrorism to the very possibility of absolute moral obligations?

Perhaps, then, this issue was just on my mind when I finally got around to seeing Kathryn Bigelow’s acclaimed Zero Dark Thirty, but I couldn’t help but think of how this film gets to the heart of this theoretical conundrum. The story of the CIA’s attempt to find Osama bin Laden in the wake of 9/11, Zero Dark Thirty is, in a number of respects, an example of cinematic realism. For example, The New Yorker‘s David Denby praises Bigelow’s portrayal of moral ambiguity, noting that Zero Dark Thirty “pays close attention to the way life does work.” And, famously, the film’s depiction of “enhanced interrogation” (what many would simply call “torture”) has divided both critics and filmgoers. The Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, claims that Zero Dark Thirty is an attempt to “normalize” torture and, in turn, to legitimate the methods of American military power. Yet Andrew Sullivan, formerly of The Daily Beast, views it rather as an exposure of torture and of the tactics of “armchair warriors” such as former Vice President, Dick Cheney. What’s interesting, however, is that all of these perspectives agree on a decisive point — namely, that Bigelow does, in fact, make a film that hews closely to the real, that does, in fact, reproduce life as it actually is, for better or for worse.

But is this true? In other words, is is it not also (or even more) true to say that Zero Dark Thirty has pretensions of being realistic but, in truth, is closer to “movie magic,” a figment of Bigelow’s imagination, translated to the screen with admirable dexterity? Much could be said in favor of this perspective. After all, the film was not shot in Pakistan, where most of it is set, but in Manimajra, India. And, ironically, residents there were said to be excited about the film’s Oscar prospects — a reception quite different from that portrayed on film. But this is only a crude example of a deeper issue, which, I think, hits on the weakness of Zero Dark Thirty. As one critic has complained, the film’s protagonist, “Maya” (Jessica Chastain), is depicted as relentlessly single-minded in her pursuit of bin Laden. Indeed, we are given little information as to her motivation, other than an amorphous sense of anger and revenge. The same could be said of Bigelow’s development of other characters, whether Maya’s fellow CIA agents (including Jason Clarke, in a key role) or the Al-Qaeda operatives they are pursuing.

Surely, however, this is an illusion. History doesn’t just “happen” but, rather, is animated by various ideas and systems, be they economic, political, or theological. Yet, in sidelining such considerations, ostensibly in the name of “realism,” Bigelow fails to do justice to what is really real. Hence, paradoxically, Zero Dark Thirty is not quite as serious as it means to be. It might have explored the curious points of overlap, whether in the East or in the West, between fundamentalism(s) and power; it might have considered moderate political or theological voices; at the very least, it might have offered a clearer rationale for its main players, so that they become more than one-dimensional cutouts. But it doesn’t. Content to stick to the “facts,” Zero Dark Thirty lacks the philosophical substructure that might have made it truly important; it crumbles, finally, under its own weight.

Foxcatcher (dir. Bennett Miller, 2014)

In January 1996, the American philanthropist, scientist, and heir to the Du Pont family fortune, John Eleuthère du Pont, shot and killed a man on his Pennsylvania estate. That man was Dave Schultz — an Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling and the head of du Pont’s “Team Foxcatcher” wrestling team. After his arrest, du Pont pled “not guilty by reason of insanity” and was found guilty of murder in the third degree. He would die at a Pennsylvania correctional institute in 2010.

Such are the bare, yet grim, facts of du Pont’s demise. But why did he kill Schultz? And how did this ornithologist and philatelist become intertwined with U.S.A. Wrestling, so much so that he housed a training facility on his property? Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher aims to explore these questions, and it does so with muted tension and an almost palpable sense of dread — qualities that earned Miller “Best Director” honors at Cannes in 2014. That Foxcatcher also bears political undertones, treating du Pont (Steve Carell, a long way from Brick Tamland and Michael Scott) as a symbol of American privilege and conceit, casts a wider light on its narrative. In trying to understand du Pont, Miller suggests, we may be to able to better understand why hard-working persons like Dave Schultz are “shot down” in their pursuit of the American dream.

It is an ambitious premise, and Miller’s execution is admirable. Yet, I’m not sure that it ultimately works. For one thing, Miller is only able to guess at du Pont’s motivation, both with regard to Team Foxcatcher and with regard to his killing of Schultz. Perhaps it was a lonely upbringing, exacerbated by a demeaning mother? Perhaps it was suppressed sexual desire, particularly in relation to Schultz’s younger brother, Mark (Channing Tatum, in a breakout performance). Perhaps it was drug and alcohol addiction? Or perhaps it was the realization that, wealth aside, du Pont really never had anything — indeed, that money just can’t buy me love?

Ironically, any of these reasons might lend themselves to theological exploration. After all, human fallenness and the concomitant frustration of desire are classic theological motifs, which have their roots in the very first chapters of the Bible (Gen 1-3). But Miller fails to delve into these topics, even in a philosophical mode. The socio-political symbolism — he relishes the fact that du Pont refers to himself as “Golden Eagle” — is just too inviting, too “important.” Even worse, such speculation may simply be beside the point. Further exploration of the du Pont case suggests that, while du Pont certainly was rich, he was also certainly mentally ill. Doubtless it is convenient to turn him into an archetype, but, in this case, there is a very real question about the suitability of such an approach.

Du Pont was a fallen human being, compromised by the frailty of our condition. And there is a depth, a genuine sadness, in such a truth. But, alas, the stuff of political tragedy it is not.