Monday, January 7, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

I'm more than a little conflicted on this one.

On one hand, Kathryn Bigelow has made a really powerful and precise re-enactment of the events that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Starting with audio of the 9/11 attacks, right to the aftermath of the raid on his compound. It's sharp, extremely well-made, and feels authentic. You can't argue about Bigelow's skill with the camera, she is a master, only now, finally, getting her deserved attention. There is nothing wrong with this film, and individual scenes work like gangbusters.

I'm also sort of torn, because unlike The Hurt Locker (yes, it's unfair to compare, but I cannot help it), I was never really emotionally engaged by what was going on. Intrigued? Interested? Sure. The Hurt Locker, however, felt revelatory and powerful because it made me understand what William James (Jeremy Renner) was enduring and experiencing emotionally. After a pretty shattering and frightening use of telephone audio from the Twin Towers in the opening moments, Zero Dark Thirty works very, very hard to make the events unemotional and clinical.

I understand that must've been an intentional choice. I also understand why you would make that choice. thing is, the movie sort of fell in the middle for me. It's not a "puzzle" challenging the audience to keep up, like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (though it obviously is for the characters), and it doesn't emotionally suck me in. It's a fictionalized documentation of the recent past, and precious little more than that.

It's not like it doesn't raise issues, because it most assuredly does. The loudest voices have been about the film's "jingoism," and portrayal of torture by the CIA.

On the first issue, I can only say that the film is far too cold and clinical to really be jingoistic. It presents what happened, and how various people responded to it. The CIA analyst we follow through the story "Maya'" (Jessica Chastain - who's quite good), has a laser-like focus on her target, but we never know why. All we ever really know is that she is a professional who does her job well, even after she has friends killed by an Al-Qaeda bomber. There's obviously politics involved, you couldn't tell this story without them, but I never once felt any sense of "America, FUCK YEAH!!!" This is what happened, according to "first person accounts," Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who also wrote The Hurt Locker) document it, period.

As to the second issue, all I can say is this: The film clearly, and unflinchingly, shows the techniques of torture used by the CIA on detainees. It also shows that information gleaned from these detainees led "Maya" to Bin Laden's compound. It also shows us, in the character of  "Dan" (Jason Clarke - who's the absolute best thing in the movie), operatives who do not take joy in these sessions. It's almost a mantra for the film, this is their job, they do it well. They understand the horror of it, but they see it as their duty to do it. "Dan," in particular, being the primary character engaging in these tactics, seems haunted for the entire film, and "Maya" is clearly sickened at first.

I think an audience who would rather see an indictment of the practice will be upset or outraged, and the supporters will be upset because they would rather not have ever seen waterboarding, for example, dramatized. I, personally, will give the film high marks for making the torture of the detainees as messy and complicated as the "issue" truly is. This is what happened, it was ugly and brutal, and it may have saved lives in the long run. Certainly, these characters felt it did.

That sort of clinical detachment continues to the actual raid on Bin Laden's compound. The SEAL team (Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are the most recognizable faces) is precise, brutal and thorough. Again, I'm sure some will find the way they coldly put and extra bullet in each downed body off-putting, or even offensive, but I recognized the idea that you need to make sure that when you put a hostile down, he stays down. Ultimately, however, the clinical nature of what we're seeing makes the entire sequence less than immediate. Everything feels at arms length. To be clear, I never expected to be thrilled, or exhilarated by this sequence, but I did expect more tension than I felt was there.

Like I said, I see the reason for these choices. This idea, again, of watching these events through the eyes of professional people simply doing their jobs, is interesting. Yet, ultimately, I felt like I might as well have watched a news report. Bigelow and Boal's film feels more like a documentary than most of the documentaries I've seen lately.

I guess for me, personally, I feel like a fictionalized, dramatic film should do more than simply relate events to us. Fictionalizing true events, at it's best, allows us to expand the human feelings that massive historical events tend to steamroll over. To find the way these events impacted, and changed, the humans caught up in it. It exposes something beyond facts and details. The Hurt Locker did that with the Iraq War, in my opinion. I think Zero Dark Thirty, while being a truly outstanding work of cinema craft, fell short.


I really don't give a crap about how "accurate" this film is. My discussion of the as being "realistic" seems to be construed by some as that I think everything is accurate. I don't. I also don't think that matters.

Zero Dark Thirty is a FICTIONAL version of true events. Yes, the filmmakers have attempted, via research, to be as accurate as they could, however that does not make the film a documentary. It makes it a fictional film that strives for a hyper-realistic, psuedo-documentary feel. That "feel" is what I have trouble with.

I don't know how accurate the film is, in terms of detail. Don't care, at all. However, I, personally, wish Bigelow and Boal had strove from more emotional connection, rather than aiming for an accuracy they could never really achieve.


  1. You should check this out.

    Favorite paragraph: One of the advantages of inhabiting the world of Hollywood is that you can have things both ways. In the publicity campaign for the movie, the director and the screenwriter have stressed that “Zero Dark Thirty” was carefully researched and is fact-based. When discussing the so-called torture scenes, director Kathryn Bigelow has said: “I wish it was not part of our history, but it was.” Yet when pressed about inaccuracies, screenwriter Mark Boal has been quick to remind everyone: “This is not a documentary.”

  2. With countless examples of biased media coverage in this country (an obvious one being FOX "News"), I can see how audiences would watch a piece like "Zero Dark Thirty" and think it's a documentary - especially if the style is so close to one.

    Heck, I bet I can get some of these people to wax nostalgic about Spinal Tap in their early years.

  3. This is a fantasy, not a documentary, and the marketing team blew it big time in their promotion. People were allowed to believe that this was a barely fictionalized- to protect our brave women and men- presentation of reality. It was not. It was not, by a long, long mile. Thousands of man hours, the efforts of hundreds of people tracking through scores of leads and facts and clues- it might make a fascinating movie, but not of the type these folks were making.

    As for the torture... I don't feel that it was aggrandized at all. It's nasty, as it would have been. I do wish that the filmmakers had been a bit more ambivalent about the effectiveness of it all.

    Because people are sort of seeing that as a justification.

    When- again and again history proves this unequivocally- there is neither justification nor reliable use for torture.

    In the end... it's a good movie about how something _might_ have happened... that people are taking far too damned literally.