Monday, January 28, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Movie Review

I’m coming at my review of Zero Dark Thirty after it has become a lightning rod for criticism and charges that it depicts torture as having elicited a positive outcome in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, overplaying the role of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” in tracking down the world’s most wanted terrorist. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s defense is as reasonable and accurate as you can get: depiction is not the same as support. But the specific charge is that the story, as laid out in Mark Boal’s screenplay, has the chain of information leading to bin Laden coming from facts gleaned through torture. I recognize this is problematic, made more complicated by the fact that Boal and Bigelow have touted the journalistic nature of the film.


Bigelow could not leave torture out of the story, she claims, because it was part of the story as it happened in real life, whether that torture was effective or not. But they begin their film by announcing that everything in the film comes from firsthand accounts of real events even though we know that the Senate Intelligence Committee found that torture did not provide any useful information that ultimately led to bin Laden. So we come back to the argument that it’s a movie that takes liberties. Then that journalistic approach to filmmaking gets in the way again and suddenly I’m dizzy. In all seriousness, though, I have no real problem with Bigelow exploiting scenes of torture in her film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Those scenes are at times brutally uncomfortable to sit through, especially as you contemplate that this is what the government of my country authorized. No, torture may not have led us to bin Laden, but it is part of the story and it would be disingenuous to ignore its importance in the overall program of hunting down terrorists.

As to the movie itself, which is difficult enough to divorce from politics, Zero Dark Thirty is one of the most gripping political thrillers in the last several years. I kept thinking of Argo for the obvious connections to the Arab world in the two stories, but also to slow burn thrillers like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that rely more on building suspense in disquieting moments than on thumping action. Although Zero Dark Thirty is certainly more amped up than Tinker Tailor

Boal’s screenplay is structured to hit all the major developments that took place during the nine year investigation and hunt for bin Laden. It seems clear that it’s all painstakingly researched and I have no doubts about the veracity of the claim that it’s all based on firsthand accounts. It spends a lot of time sifting through the intelligence meetings and briefings. This isn’t the kind of thriller where an agent picks up key information and dashes off to save the day. This is more about the long slog of putting in tireless hours of interviewing key witnesses and associates, listening to tips, paying off snitches. This all raises an interesting point with regard to the torture issue. Opponents of torture often argue that even if it weren’t inhumane, it’s anyway not nearly as effective as having “people on the ground” gathering intelligence. One of the most important breaks in the case in Zero Dark Thirty happens as a result of paying off a snitch with a $250K Lamborghini. That seems to me a pretty good argument against torture as a method for extracting intelligence.

What I found the film does incredibly well, apart from building tension around a story whose outcome we already know, is demonstrate the sheer enormity of the task involved in tracking down a man who doesn’t want to be found and is exacting about choosing his associates, all of whom are equally interested in keeping him safe. When thousands of tips are coming in daily from countries all over the world, how can a single agency be expected to keep up? So it’s hardly a surprise when another crucial piece of evidence comes in years too late because it just got buried in the noise. There simply wasn’t manpower enough to track down every single lead. So in effect Zero Dark Thirty is about the necessity of having the requisite instinct, without which we never would have found bin Laden, for tracking down the right leads.

The film spends the first 45 minutes or so with the film’s star, Jessica Chastain as Maya, mostly sidelined by Jason Clarke’s operative Dan, the enforcer trying to extract information from a detainee at a CIA blacksite. Through the first act, Maya remains mostly quiet and observant. She recoils from the more sickening acts committed against the detainee, but alone in the room with him she doesn’t hesitate for a moment to tell him that he can end it. This is not your typical female protagonist. Her displeasure at torture doesn’t come from her femininity but from her humanity. Later she will almost single-handedly take on the entire intelligence community in her insistence that the leads she’s uncovered be followed because she truly believes she’s located bin Laden’s compound.

In that respect, Zero Dark Thirty is a totally conventional Hollywood thriller, featuring the lone wolf who takes on the establishment. Scenes staged and executed with great power are nonetheless ripped from the annals of cinema history: Maya stands up to her boss in Pakistan (Kyle Chandler) and tells him if he won’t provide the resources she needs, he’ll have to explain why he didn’t aid in the world’s largest manhunt; and then several scenes of Maya loudly voicing her opinion in round table meetings where she’s meant to keep quiet. Maya is professional, she’s determined, and she’s focused. Later after a friend of hers (Jennifer Ehle) is killed in the terrorist attack on a CIA compound in Afghanistan, it seems to become a personal mission for her. When briefing the team that will storm the compound and take out bin Laden she tells the team leader (Joel Edgerton), “You’re going to kill bin Laden for me.” This is real Hollywood boilerplate, but something about it just works so well. Maybe it’s that Maya is a woman unlike most female protagonists who have preceded her. Maybe it’s that Chastain is such a charismatic performer and capable of making Maya entirely believable.

Bigelow and Boal claim that Maya is based on a real person, but I find it a little to tidy that the real woman was responsible for everything that her cinematic character accomplishes. It fits the narrative too perfectly. She may be a real person, but it’s hard to believe all of her actions were undertaken by the same real person. None of that matters in a negative way, however, as she is, with her jingoism and personal vendetta approach, the personification of America’s long national nightmare of a search for the man responsible for 9/11. And I have to admit to feeling a great sense of satisfaction at witnessing such a pig of a man being coyly tracked to a place he believed himself to be untouchable. And I watched with excitement and glee as the U.S. military methodically swept through his compound and ended it all by putting a bullet in his face. As a nation we waited and hoped for years. Perhaps we sometimes despaired that bin Laden would never be found, or that he would die from his kidney disease and we wouldn’t get that cathartic opportunity to kill him ourselves. Maya is all those feelings together. And in the end, she doesn’t pull the trigger herself (that would be the Schwarzenegger brand of Hollywood convention), but it sure feels like she did.

Zero Dark Thirty feels like the kind of movie that is made twenty years or thirty years after the fact. Think about Argo or Thirteen Days, which is about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those films take place thirty and forty years prior to their release. Zero Dark Thirty is more akin to All the President’s Men, which was made on roughly the same timeframe with respect to actual events, the clear benefit of which is eyewitness testimonials that are not clouded by poor memory and time. In a strange way, Zero Dark Thirty feels like the final word on this particular chapter of unfortunate history in America. Not that I think we should take a Hollywood movie as a substitute for historical documents and academic study, but if movies are supposed to give us entry into an alternate reality, then this is the ultimate in escapist fantasy: we get to witness one of the most significant military actions undertaken by the United States in the last fifty years. And we get it while we’re still coming down off the initial high we experienced when the story broke only 18 months earlier.

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