The ad campaign for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is all about the act of snuffing out, and Americans’ collective obsession with annihilating all threats to their personal freedoms. Of course, the topic at hand is the biggest threat of all, as Zero Dark Thirty tracks the manhunt and eventual assassination of Osama bin Laden. The poster at right, its case-closed counterpart, and the film’s just-released trailer all deal in dramatic erasure, be it the crisscross strikethrough of a familiar headshot, or the systematic blacking out of classified intel. Naturally, the symbolism largely speaks to the killshot heard ’round the world, but it seems to also have a darker connotation, feeding into the theories that the world wasn’t told the whole story. Staying true to the tight-lipped nature of Bigelow’s post-Hurt Locker production, which underwent rumored title changes right up until its trailer’s release, this is marketing that’s at once provocative and nondescript, as nudgingly suggestive as it is withholding.
In a year that brought us the faux verisimilitude and ideological propaganda of Act of Valor, it’s a gift to also have the latest militaristic epic from Bigelow, who, last time, expertly balanced patriotism with the ugly truth that many soldiers see war as their drug of choice. A similar evenhandedness is achieved with Zero Dark Thirty’s lead one-sheet. As opposed to the poster for Act of Valor, which presents a family of armed silhouettes complete with Spielbergian backlighting, this image depicts what appears to be another dedicated, yet dutifully war loving, marine, who wears his enemy’s photo not as a badge of courage, but as a zealous mark of pack-prescribed identity. On the one hand, the shadowy profile follows a certain “hoo-ra,” American-hero template, an iteration of which we just saw with the poster for Man of Steel, but on the other, there’s a perfectly subtle element of subversion, which is cemented with the tagline, “And justice for all.”
There’s a fabulous smack that comes along with that statement, one of political, social, and conspiratorial implications. Indeed, the world is a better place without Osama bin Laden in it. But any humanist who took to his Facebook news feed following the terrorist’s death will tell you that he felt less like a member of a justice-served society than a witness to mass, reactionary bloodlust. Such resulting groupthink and cheers of “Take that, motherfucker!” no doubt pleased the Obama administration, who surely had a goal of national, bipartisan appeasement, with approval ratings as much in the crosshairs as Public Enemy Number One. The film might not go anywhere near the subject of secrets, but the tagline could also be read as further evidence of the story’s shuffle-under-the-rug charges, a nod to the at-all-costs propulsion of the mission, and, perhaps, misdirection from the concealment of crucial details. Ironically, Zero Dark Thirty’s biggest point of controversy has been the fact that Obama gave Bigelow and her crew ample access to this ultra-classified mission, resulting, of course, in charges of the president jeopardizing national security. And, as many right-of-center voters have conveniently forgotten that Obama, motivations be damned, put down the most reviled terrorist in history, the film’s initial October release was met with accusations of “remember this” favoritism and Democratic cheerleading. As noted in the poster, Zero Dark Thirty has been moved to Dec. 19, a damage-control move by the folks at Sony. Approval ratings, it seems, are paramount in every arena.