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|Zero Dark Thirty
by Brett Gallman
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a discomforting film for disquieting times, and one of its many triumphs is its ability to portray a country’s proud moment and refuse to play it as such. While the enduring images that emerged after the elimination of Osama bin Laden will likely center on the revelry and its magnitude, director Kathryn Bigelow isn’t concerned with the vastness of the event; instead, she’s more interested in the incredible and often troubling minutiae of the decade-long manhunt.By taking a measured, journalistic approach, she has crafted a film that brilliantly contextualizes and humanizes a search that unfolded in the shadows of moralistic grey areas, and Bigelow wisely avoids stepping away from that. This is a film that examines and subtly leads one to question the personal and national costs of a war marked by ambiguity. It purports to present the events as they happened, but the implicit questions rumbling beneath ask if it was worth it.
"A procedural more concerned with questions than answers."
The film plunges us back to Ground Zero with an overture that avoids the 9/11 imagery that’s been seared into our collective consciousness; instead, we’re presented a jumbled mass of sound bites and phone calls, a tactic that also takes us back to the zero point of our rage and confusion. It also serves as a perfect prelude to the next decade, where intelligence agencies spent much of their time in the dark, chasing snippets of possible leads. The film opens two years later in an undisclosed CIA black hole that’s used to interrogate suspects and detainees; it’s Maya’s (Jessica Chastain) first day on a job she didn’t exactly ask for, and she’s treated to the grim reality surrounding her nation’s search for bin Laden.
We watch along with her as she observes fellow agent Dan (Jason Clarke) ruthlessly subject a suspect to “enhanced techniques,” including waterboarding. It’s an exhausting, brutal sequence that confirms Bigelow’s refusal to sugar-coat history; it’s raw, uncomfortable, and doesn’t initially take sides. The treatment might be inhumane and our sympathies even subtly shifted to the victim as he cries in terror and shits his pants, but there’s also something quietly disarming about Clarke’s cool, calculated portrayal, which is highlighted by his insistence that everyone eventually breaks. “It’s biology, bro,” he says not as a sadist, but as someone simply doing their job.
Ultimately, that’s what’s at the heart of “Zero Dark Thirty,” a massive procedural film concerned with people doing a largely unglamorous job despite the seemingly glamorous end result. After the torture scenes, Bigelow settles in to reveal just how mundane and frustrating this endeavor was; despite this, “Zero Dark Thirty” is remarkably riveting because its director renders the process absorbent. Even though the story here is inherently fascinating, it turns out that the details mostly involve Maya’s inhuman patience and dogged insistence. The first real break in the case comes when she tricks her detainee into revealing the identity of bin Laden’s courier, information that was eventually revealed to the public after the al-Qaeda leader’s death.
“Zero Dark Thirty” reveals that this information hardly put the CIA on a direct course to bin Laden, though, as it came all the way back in 2004. In the years following, the lead was lost and found, leading to numerous starts and stops in the manhunt. If there’s a through-line to the largely journalistic film, it’s Maya’s refusal to relinquish the lead even when her superiors consider it a dead end. Other operations and leads, including one involving a Jordanian doctor who reportedly infiltrated al-Qaeda’s ranks, serve as sort of perilous asides that highlight the desperation and frustration experienced by agents in their pursuit.
Sequences like that one and others (like a hotel bombing in Pakistan frequented by U.S. agents) recall the obvious sites in the War on Terror; this is the stuff that unfolded in news cycles and certainly serve as unnerving, visceral highlights in “Zero Dark Thirty.” But what’s truly remarkable is Bigelow’s ability to maintain that intensity for the rest of the film, which features Maya sifting through files, phone calls, and video transmissions.
Much of it resonates and envelops due to Chastain’s performance, a perfectly-pitched and restrained turn that allows Maya to act as a surrogate for both audience and country as she plunges herself into the dark, inhumane corners in the War on Terror. When she winces during that first interrogation, it reflects our own hesitation about the techniques; only a few years later, she has no qualms about ordering a brutish agent to pummel a suspect on her behalf. Maya is indeed based on an actual agent, but Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have also masterfully crafted her as a symbol of America’s skewed moral compass. She might be billed as a “killer” by Washington, but there’s an almost innocent softness to her that seeps away.
Beyond her symbolic implications, Maya is just a downright compelling character to observe. Chastain’s performance is incredible, and it’s one that’s felt without the actress or screenplay resorting to obvious, showy displays. Her weariness physically creeps in as her search is prolonged, but it’s countered by Chastain’s feisty brazenness. Watching her transform from a low-level CIA tracker to someone with enough balls to chastise ineffectual CIA brass is delightful and brings some unexpected levity to the proceedings. “Zero Dark Thirty” might be an intense, serious movie, but Bigelow and Boal rightfully remember the humanity resting at its center; these aren’t just automatons doing their jobs—they’re actual people, and the world is so expertly realized that everyone who appears brings a lived-in quality, from Kyle Chandler’s beleaguered CIA head to the charismatic grunts of Seal Team Six.
To that end, “Zero Dark Thirty” is simply an engrossing film that’s fashioned with the exactness and personality of the best sort of page-turner. There are moments early on that get caught up in jargon and banter that keep the audience at arm’s reach, but it soon draws you in with a richness of performance and craft. This is top shelf filmmaking and storytelling that moves with a purpose; for all its thematic depth, it glides with the elegance of a hard-boiled thriller. Even though the end of this story in never in question, Bigelow manages to inch you to the edge of your seat, especially during the Seal Team Six raid on bin Laden’s compound. Like the rest of the film, this is understated, raw, and unflinching stuff that’s thoroughly engaging on a visceral level.
However, this sequence also goes beyond visceral. As you watch the Seals mercilessly pump bullets into downed enemies (including women) in the presence of children, it’s a subtle reminder that even this triumphant moment was marked by a grim, horrifying reality. Such is the message of “Zero Dark Thirty”: “this is how it was, for better or worse.” Bigelow doesn’t lead you to one side or the other, at least not obviously; she does take you down a certain path and leaves you to explore the implications of what you’ve just witnessed. Was it worth it? That the film leaves you with a haunting image speaks volumes.
Much has been made about the film’s depiction of torture, but it’s worth noting that the film depicts it because the United States frequently employed it. To assume otherwise would be a disservice to history and to the film itself, which wants to put these horrors on centers stage not because it endorses them, but because it wants to disconcert viewers into questioning them. To say that the film outright endorses torture seems absurd since its effectiveness is highly questionable (several terrorist attacks occur because torture is unable to stop them), and the topic is not broached without commentary.
If there’s an obvious moment to be found in the film, it comes when a newly elected Barack Obama pledges to end torture in an attempt to restore America’s moral standing. This is one of the film’s fundamental messages: the tactics used for the bulk of the War on Terror not only haven’t worked, but they’ve blurred the moral lines between America and its enemies. Most tellingly, Maya isn’t able to reach bin Laden’s compound until after the torture program has ended. Regarding “Zero Dark Thirty” as an apologia for the Bush administration isn’t just misguided—it misses the entire point that this is a subtle indictment of those policies.
Perhaps Bigelow complicates things by refusing to portray the CIA agents who employ torture as cartoonish, monstrous goons. Clarke’s character is especially fascinating. By his own admission, he is not a nice guy, but Clarke infuses him with a likable swagger that could be misread as absolving the character’s sins with a “boys will be boys” approach, but the film seems to go out of its way to establish that torture as twisted him as much as it has his victims. On some levels, it seems okay to consider him a perfectly okay guy who was pushed to commit wartime atrocities by a confounding, senseless war; in many ways, Dan is not unlike Maya in that he is fundamentally changed by the hunt for bin Laden. Make no mistake—he isn’t weepily portrayed as a victim who ever confesses his sins (when he warns Maya to ease up on the torture, it’s more an act of self-preservation than some sudden moral stirrings), but the film finds an appreciable middle ground that condemns the process more than many of its players.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is astonishing not because it answers its most obvious question (“how did we get bin Laden?”) but because it raises even more questions along the way. If everything indeed changed after September 11th, this film is a stark testament to that fact. Not content to be mere procedural that brings events to light, it also pokes around in the shadows and amoralities that defined them. How do you produce uncertainty from a story whose outcome is certain? Bigelow does it by reminding us that history books have long been lined with underlying question marks; if history is written by the victors, then “Zero Dark Thirty” aims to undercut the triumph of victory with a sobering, icy look at an ugly chapter.Bigelow’s choice to treat victory as a quiet, unsettling, and even perfunctory moment instead of aggrandizing these deeds is incredibly bold; this is not a film that waves the flag for God and country, but one that simply lets the flag flap in the turbulence of war. It might emerge, but it doesn’t do so unscathed.
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originally posted: 01/11/13 14:10:16