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Ambiguity, ambivalence and absence in Zero Dark Thirty

Purse, L. (2017) Ambiguity, ambivalence and absence in Zero Dark Thirty. In: Purse, L. and Hellmich, C. (eds.) Disappearing War Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Cinema and Erasure in the Post-9/11 World. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, pp. 131-148. ISBN 9781474416566

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Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s 2013 film about the ten year hunt for Osama bin Laden, has provoked competing accusations: that it is either anti-war or pro-war, anti-torture or pro-torture, and left wing or right wing in its political convictions. The heat of the assertions on either side of the debate (Naomi Wolf (2013) famously accused Bigelow of being ‘torture’s handmaiden’) illustrates the extent to which the film’s subject matter — the post-9/11 counter-terrorism strategies deployed by the US Military and government agencies — itself continues to provoke vociferous political and cultural discussion. Not for the first (or last) time in American cinema history, a film becomes the site at which a nationally felt ambivalence — in this case, about US actions carried out in the name of the so-called ‘war on terror’ — is explored. Zero Dark Thirty has caused controversy not only because of its subject matter, but because of its ambiguity. The debates around the film have focused most intently on key elements of what is presented on-screen: the scenes of torture, the character of Maya (played by Jessica Chastain), and the killing of bin Laden. These have provoked strikingly contrasting interpretations, drawn from the same filmmaking decisions, and the same screen details. Thus Zero Dark Thirty has become what Frank Tomasulo once, in relation to a different war film, called a ‘national Rorschach test’ (Tomasulo 1990: 147). In this essay I want to unpick these ambiguities, to consider if Zero Dark Thirty gives voice to or counters a felt ambivalence about the war on terror, by examining what has sometimes slipped from view in the heated discussion of its scenes of torture and killing. That is, what absences might the compelling presences of Zero Dark Thirty obscure?

Item Type:Book or Report Section
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Arts and Communication Design > Film, Theatre & Television
ID Code:71580
Uncontrolled Keywords:war representation; Kathryn Bigelow; war on terror; Zero Dark Thirty; war cinema
Publisher:Edinburgh University Press


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