Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

*. Zero Dark Thirty is a well-made movie that left me with a bad feeling for at least three different reasons.
*. First, and least problematically, it’s too long. I don’t mean by this that it was ever dull or dragged, but rather that there was a whole bunch of stuff I felt they could have, and should have, left out. Most of it being material in the first half of the film. Meanwhile, the raid on the compound at the end felt almost entirely dislocated from the rest of the picture.
*. This is a significant structural flaw. The character of Maya (Jessica Chastain) is simply dropped from the final act. And while the raid sequence is effective it’s presented in a way that’s become quite generic: with the satellite images being fed to the operations room and the team on the ground fully linked up and equipped with night vision goggles. About the only thing I flagged as interesting was the morose score. It underlines the way the action is presented in a manner that’s more mechanical than heroic.
*. The second reason for my feeling bad has to do with Zero Dark Thirty‘s status as the dramatization of a true story. Right from the start a documentary note is struck with the introduction of actual 9/11 recordings of panicked victims. This signals fierce and unflinching authenticity, a promise that is maintained right up through the raid upon a meticulously reconstruction of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Kathryn Bigelow wanted the compound to be “100% accurate” so that she could precisely re-enact all the movements of the SEAL team, and it certainly has that feel.
*. But it is not a true story. Not at all. The opening title screen only announces that “the following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events.” There’s a lot of wiggle room in that, and it’s room that gets exploited. To start with the most obvious example, the central character of the CIA agent Maya is entirely fictional. At best she’s a composite of several actual figures, but her story here is made up.
*. Does that matter? Some critics complained that Maya had no personal identity or back story fleshed out over the course of the film, but that may be missing the point. She’s not really a character. She’s only there to serve the function of tying the story together.
*. Now I have nothing against taking liberties with the facts. This happens with every movie based on true events. Some selection and heightening has to occur for reasons of narrative economy and dramatic effect. This isn’t a documentary, despite being shot in a documentary style.

*. That said, some liberties are bigger than others. Chief among these is the handling of torture. In Zero Dark Thirty Osama bin Laden is tracked down by locating his chief courier, who is in turn located by way of torturing lower-level flunkies.
*. This is not, by all (and I mean all) reports, how it happened. Aside from any moral questions, the biggest knock against torture (or use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”) is that it doesn’t work. It really doesn’t, and it didn’t in this case either. I have nothing against Bigelow making torture such an essential part of the story here, but she creates a false narrative around its use in two ways: she doesn’t mention any of the controversy its use occasioned at the time, even within the ranks of the intelligence community, and she shows it as having been effective when it wasn’t. This is too big a lie, on too important a subject, for me to give a pass to.
*. My final reason for feeling bad about Zero Dark Thirty has to do with its feminism. Just typing that makes me anxiously look about, but I’ll try to explain what I mean.
*. Kathryn Bigelow may be Hollywood’s best known woman director, and her desire to tell the story of the bin Laden manhunt from a woman’s perspective is at the very least an interesting one. And, despite the fact that “Maya” (I assumed this was a code name) isn’t a real or fully realized character, I think we are meant to see her in a feminist light. She’s trying to prove herself in a man’s world. She’s up against the old boy’s network and at every step she has to prove that she’s as tough and smart as they are. There’s a scene where a colleague tells her to calm down when she’s arguing her case and I think everyone can relate to her “I am calm!” need to reassert herself and establish that she’s not going in to hysterics.
*. The other place where I thought the different perspective really worked was in the business where Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) gets blown up by a terrorist. I felt emotionally drawn in to this part of the film more than by anything else because it had such a relatable everyday analogy. Jessica has met someone on the Internet and has arranged a date, even baking a cake for him. She’s so looking forward to it! And then everything goes so spectacularly to shit. I thought that whole chapter of the film was the best part.
*. The character of Maya, however, just depressed me. That I didn’t find her likeable wasn’t the problem. I didn’t find any of the leads likeable (Jason Clarke is downright annoying). But I didn’t find her credible either. I suppose she’s meant to represent the aggressive “alpha female,” but is this really how anyone thinks the world works? That if you’re a big enough asshole and act obnoxious to everyone you will eventually succeed? The way Maya yells at superiors makes no sense. She writes threatening numbers on her boss’s office window without being told to stop. She mouths off to the SEAL team, telling them that they’re going to kill bin Laden for her. And no one questions this when she says it!
*. I get that she’s being presented as bin Laden’s Ahab, but is it empowering for a woman to be portrayed as such a total asshole? An obnoxious, self-centered, bullying jerk? Are her tears at the end meant to humanize her somehow? Show us how much she has suffered too? Is she a hero?
*. Well, maybe there are people who find Maya heroic and see her as a feminist role model. And I’m sure there are people who believe in torture too. But personally I think the first point is misleading at best and the second is a lie. Is that a problem? Can Zero Dark Thirty still be appreciated as art, or just entertainment? It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, after all.
*. As I began by saying, I think it’s a well-made movie. I don’t think it’s anything special though. Its look is generic and its structure clunky. It also does a little dance over the matter of its politics. “The film doesn’t have an agenda,” Bigelow announced. I think that’s nonsense. This is not an objective account but a shaping and revisioning of actual events, and not just to make them more exciting or easier to follow. This didn’t make me angry but disappointed. For all its rawness and intensity, this is a movie that doesn’t take any chances and has little new to say. What makes this so sad is that the line it sticks to is so wrong.

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