The loneliness of the long-distance data analyst

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty.

There has been a lot of grumbling over movie studios’ increasing practice of releasing “important” films in only a couple of US theatres in December and saving wider release until after the Academy Award nominations have been announced in January. How does the average movie fan know what or whom to root for, if he or she hasn’t even had an opportunity to see half the contenders yet? I guess that this ploy is supposed to capitalize on Oscar buzz to drive audiences into cinemas, but if it ends up turning people off instead, Hollywood is going to have to rethink it.

Even when I’ve already seen a movie, sometimes it has to sit with me for a while before I can draw a meaningful conclusion about its place in the cinema pantheon. One can walk out of a theatre feeling thrilled in the way that the studio marketing department intended, but find the product forgettable a week or a month later. For all the Academy’s politicking, procedural shortcomings and frequent bad calls, we use the Oscars as a convenient index for highlights of cinematic history. Naïve as it may seem to ask, wouldn’t it be nice if the winners consistently represented artworks of lasting value?

Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s current Best Picture contender Zero Dark Thirty is an obvious case in point. Having heard bits of the scuttlebutt about its torture scenes, I walked into the theatre with some qualms that I would be grossed out. So I felt somewhat relieved when, although perhaps taking up an unnecessary amount of screentime, they turned out not quite as gruesome as some stuff that I’ve seen elsewhere. The narrative, and the cinematic craft by which it was propelled, proved compelling enough that I came out of the theatre feeling that I’d just seen a solid, pulse-pounding spy thriller. It was only in reflection over the next few days that the movie’s shortcomings started to creep to the surface of my consciousness.

Although quite prepared to believe the contention that Mark Boal’s screenplay accords waterboarding and other forms of what military Newspeak calls “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or EITs, far too pivotal a role in the success of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, I’m not jumping into the ranks of those who are calling for a boycott of this flick. To label it an outright apologia for the human-rights-be-damned policies of the Bush administration seems like an overstatement. It shows ugly stuff that we know happened in the post-9/11 era of national security panic. Not being personally privy to CIA classified information, I was willing to suspend moral judgment and treat it as “just a movie” – and so, I suspect, will most audiences.

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