I had been curious to hear if anyone in the audience would cheer during the killing of Osama bin Laden that occurs at the movie's climax, as some friends reported hearing at a Friday-night screening they'd attended. Not that the movie encourages this sort of response. As many reviews have noted, the climactic raid is generally without action-movie heroics; it feels like a piece of business rather than a victory, and the filmmakers undercut any potential sense of satisfaction with such repellant details as children sobbing over their parents' corpses. But the impulse some viewers have to cheer at onscreen violence is so strong that I doubt if any film could succeed at undermining it.
I'm not surprised that even a morally ambiguous movie like Zero Dark Thirty would trigger applause, though I'm glad not to have heard it all the same. Few things make me more uncomfortable at the movies than hearing people cheer the death of a stranger as though it were a touchdown or a home run. I appreciate lots of violent movies, and I often find it cathartic when a particularly loathsome character gets his or her just deserts. But I've never felt the urge to clap for an onscreen death the way I would a great musical number or slapstick sequence. In the latter the spectacle derives from the execution of a complex feat of physical invention; in the former the spectacle derives from the resolution of narrative suspense in the most barbaric way.
As Hong Kong cinema has demonstrated time and again, movie deaths can be impressively choreographed too. But when moviegoers cheer the stabbing of a random thug in the paint-by-numbers Parker, as some did at the screening I attended two weeks ago, chances are they aren't responding to Taylor Hackford's tired, generic blocking. (That applause sounded like a Little League coach acknowledging a groundout to first base at the start of a practice game. "Good hustle, good hustle . . . ") Why applaud the death of some faceless bad guy you haven't even spent enough time with to properly hate? Does the appeal lie in seeing someone disposed of so efficiently or in the demonstration of the hero's prowess at killing?