“Amour” and “Zero Dark Thirty” are difficult to sit through. They are also two contenders for this year’s Best Picture Academy Award. “Amour”, which won this year’s Palme d’Or, follows an aging man’s attempts to care for his wife after she suffers a stroke, while “Zero Dark Thirty” is a fictional portrayal of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Despite vastly different settings, characters, and languages, both films confront undesirable topics. The very themes that make the two films so difficult to watch are precisely what make them so compelling. For me, “Amour” uses a difficult subject matter to create a powerful narrative, while “Zero Dark Thirty” minimizes a troubling event by repainting it as a Hollywood action thriller.
My own personal connection to each film’s theme make them both compelling and horrifying. “Amour” and “Zero Dark Thirty” each hit close to home in different ways. Emmanuelle Riva’s portrayal of Anne resonates a little too much with me, as I spent 8 years watching my grandmother’s steep mental and physical decline before passing away. The director, Michael Haneke, depicts Anne’s deterioration without reserve. There is no part of her condition that is off limits. In one scene, Georges, Anne’s husband, hoists her from the toilet, struggling to pull up her underwear for her, and drags her useless body back into the hospital bed she sleeps in. Scenes like this made me and my fellow audience members audibly gasp in horror and shame. We felt ashamed to be privy to such intimate moments, just as I felt when I had to feed my grandmother with a spoon because she no longer understood how to eat. Film journalist Michael Koresky likens “Amour” simultaneously to a love story and a horror movie in Reverse Shot, arguing that “the punishing intimacy is for our eyes only.” (http://www.reverseshot.com/article/amour ) I felt, like Koresky, that Haneke was challenging me: I paid for the ticket, and I was now privy to the most private moments of the lives of this couple and the pain within them.
“Zero Dark Thirty,” on the other hand, justifies its indefensible actions by sensationalizing them. I have never been comfortable with Osama bin Laden’s assassination– or, I should say, I have not been comfortable with the reactions to it. The night Obama announced bin Laden’s death, friends flooded my Facebook newsfeed with celebratory statuses, and crowds danced outside my window chanting “USA! USA!” I do not question the American public’s condemnation of Osama bin Laden’s actions. I do question the pleasure people seem to get from his murder. And I certainly question the decision to sensationalize the US’ actions in Abbottabod.
Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow—the team behind ZDT—take America’s revenge fantasy and turn it into a blockbuster. The two claim that the film is based on real events, and that “not includ[ing] that part of history would hav been irresponsible and inaccurate.” However, there is a difference between telling history and justifying torture. The filmmakers do not directly glorify torture: its initial portrayals are shocking. In one scene, a prisoner hangs by his wrists from the ceiling, his pants full of his own feces and his face bloody from beatings. The audience has to watch an interrogator beat him, scream at him, coerce him, and shove him in a tiny wooden box as he attempts to elicit useful information.
Despite the horror scenes like these inspire, the filmmakers justify these actions throughout the movie. First, the information interrogators obtain from victims of torture leads them to the eventual capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. The scene in which Navy SEALS infiltrate bin Laden’s safe house is arguably the best scene in the movie; it is also the most problematic. The shaky camera work, done in night vision, makes the scene so suspenseful and riveting that I had to consciously remind myself that this was not pure entertainment– it was based on reality, a reality which I do not find entertaining. It seems to me that the filmmakers exploit problematic events to make a film with the tone of a James Bond installment.
Apparently, casting a woman in the lead role was also supposed to justify many of these actions. Both Jessica Chastain (who plays Maya) and Bigelow prided themselves on creating a strong female role within a hyper masculine environment, and received praise for it. However, I felt that Maya’s femininity was a tool with which Bigelow tried to rally audiences to Maya’s cause. Instead of being held accountable for the heinous—and often illegal—measures she takes, she gets a free pass because audiences are so excited to see a woman behave like a “badass.” And what could be wrong with a powerful, gorgeous white woman on a mission to protect her country? But despite the fact that she herself is a woman (as is another main colleague), the way Maya abuses other humans in the name of her country makes her gender irrelevant. She is not a progressive female figure in a male-dominated world—she is just as ruthless as any of her male colleagues, and just as conventional.
I would not say I enjoyed either of these movies. Frankly, I walked out of both of them feeling like I had been hit by a bus. But while “Amour” used its painful themes to create a beautiful and touching piece of art, “Zero Dark Thirty” exploits disturbing events to make an action thriller.
Both “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Amour” are nominated for Best Picture at the 2013 Academy Awards. The Awards will be broadcast live starting at 6 PM, and students can watch it in JBD.