Tonight, ten activists from human rights group The World Can't Wait gathered in front of the Regal Meridian 16 downtown to protest the 7:30 showing of Zero Dark Thirty. Spokesperson Emma Kaplan explained that the group came out to try to convince potential Zero Dark Thirty viewers to skip the movie because ZDT "is a film that is justifying torture." Several protesters were wearing bright orange Guantanamo-style jumpsuits as a reminder that today is the 11th anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo.
Like any downtown protest, there were some challenges from pedestrians. An older couple walked by and started shouting Teabagger slogans at the protesters—"Impeach Obama first," the man said. Another man walked past the protesters, then turned and shouted "Waterboarding was successful!" He ran across the street and ducked inside the Cheesecake Factory, rather than engaging the protesters in conversation. A young man with some sincere questions about the War on Terror wound up having a long conversation about the current crop of movies with one of the protesters. (He announced that Django Unchained was "awesome.")
Here's (very shaky) video of Kaplan's speech:
Kaplan and other protesters I spoke with admitted that they hadn't seen the film, although Kaplan said she was considering watching a later showing, so she could speak with authority about it. I attended the 4 pm showing of Zero Dark Thirty, which let out just as the protesters were arriving at the theater. My review—as well as more of Kelly O's photos from the protest—is after the jump.
In response to Kaplan's argument that Zero Dark Thirty "justifies" torture: I don't think that's true. This certainly isn't a 24-style glorification of Bush's War on Terror. In fact, the best of Zero Dark Thirtyfeels like reportage to me—the movie opens with a few extended torture scenes, and they're not comfortable to watch. Maya, the protagonist played by Jessica Chastain, winces and averts her eyes through the waterboarding and humiliation of one captive. The men being tortured aren't portrayed as sneering movie bad guys; they're helpless, mortal men, feeling a great deal of pain. And we're not shown that the torture directly results in the killing of Osama bin Laden, either; the movie leaves the connection ambiguous enough that viewers can come to their own conclusion. The closest thing to hero worship you get in ZDT is the harrowing depiction of the Navy SEAL mission into the bin Laden compound at the climax of the film. It's no John Wayne movie—the SEALs shoot parents in front of their children—but director Kathryn Bigelow definitely can't seem to hide her admiration of their skill and icy get-the-job-done bravado.
(Stepping away from the politics for a moment and addressing the movie as a movie reviewer: When Zero Dark Thirty departs from the documentary-style filmmaking is when it stumbles. The score feels confused about what it's supposed to be; at times it flutters like a Christopher Nolan Batman soundtrack, and occasionally it lurches into something heroic, which is a bad fit for the tone of the film. And the characterization is subpar; Chastain never manages to completely convince us that Maya is as haunted as she should be. Because of her inability to sell Maya to us, the final scene, which Bigelow seems to desperately want to imbue with meaning, just kind of...sits there, instead. The narrative desperately wants to believe it's Moby Dick with Osama bin Laden cast in the role of the white whale, when really it's just a movie-ish plot that's been stapled into a very technically impressive dramatization of recent events.)
Zero Dark Thirty is not a cause of the problems that World Can't Wait was trying to protest tonight. If anything, it's doing those protesters a service by bringing all these War on Terror issues back into the national spotlight. The movie didn't cause the torture; the movie is throwing the torture back into the faces of the people who are trying to ignore it. I can't help but think that Zero Dark Thirty is inspiring more fruitful conversations about America's War on Terror than the protesters are.