Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is one of the most controversial films of the year for a variety of political reasons, but what it’s done to really piss me off is take a goddamn eternity to finally come out. While the cities of New York and Los Angeles were deemed worthy of seeing the film as early as December 19th, those of us who live in “flyover” areas have had to wait through the most infuriating platform release plan in recent memory. That would be tolerable if this were some kind of obscure foreign film, but it’s not, it’s the most talked about film of the year. In the month since the movie opened in all of two cities I’ve had to all but plug my ears and go “lalalala” while every critic, politician, and commentator discussed the film at length. To add insult to injury Sony has gone ahead and advertised the film extensively (I feel like I’ve heard Cris Pratt say “you really believe this story, Osama bin Laden?” upwards of ten thousand times at this point) all while I’ve been anxiously averting my eyes from reviews and columns and news pieces in the mainstream media. I seriously considered pirating the movie, which is something I never do under normal circumstances, partly because I wanted to be “in the loop” and partly because I wanted to financially punish the stupid cocksucker at Sony who thought this was an acceptable way to distribute a major motion picture. However, my cooler instincts prevailed and I patiently waited for the film’s January 11th release. And now, after all that waiting and anxiety I’ve seen the film and unfortunately all I can really say is “meh.”
As anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock already knows, Zero Dark Thirty, is about the decade long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden which begins with the assignment of a young CIA analyst named “Maya” (Jessica Chastain) to a “black site” and ends with the fateful raid in Abbottabad which ended with the terrorist leader getting a bullet in the head. What many people might not be overly familiar with is what happens in between. The film is largely a step by step look at how the CIA slowly began to realize that they had stumbled upon a clue which, upon further investigation, would literally lead them to Osama Bin Laden’s doorstep. As the film opens its central character (for whom we’re never given a real name and who may essentially be a composite character) is an inexperienced but not necessarily naïve young wunderkind who watches all her superiors like “Dan” (Jason Clarke), “Jessica” (Jennifer Ehle), “George” (Mark Strong), and station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) leave for various reasons while she climbs in stature, all the while chasing an elusive lead which her superiors are increasingly losing faith in.
I would call this a character study, but we really don’t learn a whole lot about the film’s central character. We don’t know where Maya comes from or what she does in her free time or what led her to want to be in the CIA. That’s not to say she doesn’t have an arc of sorts in the film as we do get to watch her grow increasingly comfortable and determined in her role as a spy, but for the most part she remains elusive. Instead this film is very much a procedural. It uses a lot of jargon and is very interested in the realistic minutia of the day to day activities of CIA analysts in all of its complexity. Clearly director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have done a lot of research and talked to a lot of people, because they seem to have very intimate knowledge of the inner workings of intelligence work. That said, the film’s uncompromising authentic can be pretty rough going, especially in the film’s first half which is kind of slow. It isn’t really until about an hour into the film when Maya truly picks up the trail which leads to Bin Laden when the film really starts to pick up steam.
Of course it’s in the film’s first hour where the film’s most controversial scenes are. It’s been argued back and forth whether Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture: critics call the film irresponsible and dangerous while its defenders have circled their wagons and insist that this simply isn’t what the film is about. I for one see valid points on both sides. Where a lot of the film’s critics seem to error is in assuming that the film has a very different tone about all of this than it actually does. Some of them seem to think that this is some kind of flag-waving action movie akin to Act of Valor, and it certainly isn’t that. The film revels in ambiguity, and presents everything in a way that’s very matter of fact, including the tortures scenes which are quite brutal and hard to watch. At no point does the act of torturing a terrorist made to look like some kind of enjoyable activity, so the idea that the film actively glamorizes the practice is incorrect.
However, the film does seem to argue that intelligence gathered through the use of torture was an effective means to an end. The film’s protagonist (who is never really depicted as an anti-hero) takes part in these Bush-era Gestapo tactics, and while she doesn’t revel in them, she doesn’t seem to regret her participation either. Everyone who’s seen tortured in the film is presented as unquestionably guilty and all of them seem to provide useful intelligence. We don’t see the people who were almost certainly rounded up unjustly and tortured fruitlessly in an attempt to extract information that they were unable to provide. In short, we only see the upside of torture so while the film might ostensibly seem more thoughtful than an episode of “24” the message really isn’t all that different.
I think the problem might be rooted in screenwriter Mark Boal’s background in journalism. I’m sure that his defense for the torture scenes is that he’s simply presenting “the facts” in a matter of fact way and allowing the audience to make up their minds for themselves. Frankly, I think that is at best a “cop-out.” Journalists are indeed supposed to remain neutral, but narrative cinema is not journalism; it’s supposed to have a point of view and it’s supposed to make a statement, especially when it’s dealing with material that’s as loaded as this. I was similarly frustrated by the dry “neutrality” of the last Boal/Bigelow collaboration, The Hurt Locker, but at least that film was presenting a fictional story about common people and it was ultimately more about those people than it was about any specific events in Iraq. This film is more like an oddly dry recitation of facts, facts which incidentally are far from being “settled history,” and to simply recite this version of events like this seems kind of pointless.
Perhaps the real problem is simply that the film was made “too soon.” We don’t know what Boal’s sources are and we likely won’t know how accurate any of this is for decades to come. More importantly the film lacks any kind of perspective on what any of these events are really going to mean in the grand scheme of things. We know that the events in the film Lincoln really mattered because we know the thirteenth amendment ultimately ended a shameful chapter in our history and would pave the way to a more fair and equal society in the future, and consequently we’re more willing to forgive some of the dirty tactics that were required to pass that legislation. Similarly, we know in retrospect that the all the blood that was shed by the assassination squad in Spielberg’s last Tony Kushner penned historical drama, Munich, did nothing to end the violence between Israel and Palestine and that paints the way we view the events of that film. Were the same film released in 1975 instead of 2005 it would have seemed less like a rumination on an endless cycle of violence and more like a revenge film about a nation doing what it has to do in order to retaliate for its recent injury.
What Boal should have done is taken his research and used it to write a book and then had a more conventional screenwriter adapt it into a screenplay. I feel like a film that would have produced a much more insightful film that likely would have worked better as a narrative. As it is it feels like what we’re just watching is just the first draft of history. Fortunately for Boal, he’s chosen to work with Kathryn Bigelow, who has grown greatly as a filmmaker in her last two films. From a filmmaking perspective Zero Dark Thirty is far removed from the schlock that Bigelow was making in the 80s and 90s and it’s what she brings to the film that makes the film as watchable as it is. I feel like Bigelow could have made a truly great film out of this story with the right screenplay, but instead what she’s made seems like a rather dry film that doesn’t really have much of anything to say about the events that it chronicles. Zero Dark Thirty does works as a thriller and as an action-movie of sorts and it does provide some facts to chew on, and that combined with its technical merits and performances make it a film that should be watched, but I expected a whole lot more.
*** out of Four