Reviews Too Late: Zero Dark Thirty

by wjw on January 31, 2013

Jessica Chastain has two movies in the theaters at this moment.  Mama is a horror film, and Zero Dark Thirty isn’t.

Without having seen the first, I suspect the second film is far, far scarier.

It’s fortunate that I heard a lot about this movie before I saw it.  I knew to be prepared for grueling torture scenes.  I knew to be hyper-alert for signs that the director either endorsed torture or didn’t endorse it or was exposing it to public view, and/or was trying to weasel out of the implications of what her movie either endorsed or didn’t endorse or exposed.

I also knew to be on the lookout for Hollywood Liberal Bias.  I knew that conservatives had accused the film of being part of a sneaky attempt to win the 2012 election by turning Barack Obama into an action hero.  (Will conservatives  be relieved to hear that Obama does not appear in this film in the guise of Rambo?  Or will they be disappointed that their conspiracy theory has no foundation?)

In fact nobody appears in this movie as Rambo.  Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (a former war correspondent) don’t find movie action heroes very interesting.  What they find interesting is real-life soldiers doing what real-life soldiers do.  Nor do they need James Bond to make intelligence work interesting— they’re far more interested in what real-life spies do in real life.  Their particular genius in in making the audience interested, too.

The result is a movie with a pseudo-documentary flavor.  Nobody bares a six-pack or leaps off the Burj Khalifa with a fire house wrapped around his waist, there are just a bunch of smart, dedicated people doing their jobs.

I have no idea how much of this movie is true, I only know it was convincing.

The movie makes the assumption that viewers are intelligent and will know what the characters are talking about when they start hurling around acronyms and jargon.  Judging by some of the reviews I’ve seen, that assumption was one too many.

And as for torture, here’s what the movie tells us: the “detainee program” produced a long list of names; and then a lot of obsessive detective work led from that to Osama.  The chief torturer is portrayed as an intelligent, sympathetic, rather modest character.  He isn’t valorized, he isn’t villainized.  (Question: would the film have made us less uneasy if he were portrayed as a slavering fiend?)

The detective work that brings down Osama is performed by a junior CIA analyst called “Maya” in the film, and “Jen” in other sources.  Convincingly played by Ms Chastain, she is a someone who was recruited out of high school, and has literally worked on nothing but Osama for her entire career.  She is obsessed, nearly friendless, and capable of rampaging clean over her superiors to get what she wants.  This is a character that could fall into cliché— we’ve all seen those devil-may-care rogue heroes disregarding the instructions of their superiors— but Bigelow and Chastain keep it down to earth.

One thing the movie tells us: the second a black hat enters the 21st Century, we own him.  The courier that Maya tracks to Bin Laden made a fatal error the second he bought a cellphone.  As long as he stayed in the Middle Ages, along with his theology, and communicated only face-to-face or through written messages, he was anonymous.  Once he started radiating signals into the atmosphere, it was only a matter of time till he was run to earth.

Characterizations shade toward the grim.  You don’t see the CIA guys joking, or blowing off steam: they’re all deeply focused on their work.  I’ve personally met people in government who haven’t slept a night through since 9/11, but those people were also capable of being really funny.  I wish there had been a bit more of that.

And the Agency types are correctly shown as being smart.  “We’re all smart,” says CIA director Panetta, played by James Gandolfini.  (Isn’t it somehow fitting that the CIA should be run by Tony Soprano?)

Seal Team Six is shown as being more boisterous, but only by comparison with their grim Agency colleagues.  (Special ops guys tend to be, shall we say, extroverted.  See, by way of example, “Fruity Rudy” Reyes.)  But the movie doesn’t show them quite as extroverted as they really are.  The movie doesn’t violate its cool, serious, near- documentary tone.

And the complex operation to actually take down Osama is shown as being pretty much as complex as it really was.  That was a large, fortified compound, and it took a lot of soldiers and a lot of plastic explosive to get into it.

My feelings about the film are still a little complex to end by way of a slick one-liner.  What I find myself thankful for is that someone can make a movie this complex and this detailed and nuanced about the way the world may in fact work, and that real-life action heroes can be shown free of the fake Hollywood glamor that gave us a Top Gun or Ghost Protocol.


TJIC January 31, 2013 at 12:56 pm

I thought the review at the Guardian was good, specifically this bit:

One doesn’t need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.

Imagine a documentary that depicted the Holocaust in a cool, disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators.

mearsk January 31, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Katherine Bigelow really knows how to keep the tension up in movies. When I watched “The Hurt Locker,” the entire movie I kept waiting for something to blow up. Some of her and her writer’s choices in that movie made it a bit farcical. They didn’t make that error this time in Zero Dark Thirty. It really made me wonder if that’s how it actually went down, putting it right up there with Blackhawk Down as one of the best war movies.

DorjePismo February 1, 2013 at 4:49 am

Very good review, or at least, that’s pretty much how I saw it. It really did show, though not in an ideological way, that torturing has profound costs to the torturers. What I don’t know is the answer to is the main question about the “T” thing: does it work, in the sense of providing accurate information in a manner more timely than other methods are capable of doing? The movie says yes, and people in congressional hearings are very fond of saying no. I haven’t been there, and really don’t know.

The movie depicts the ops team as making sure that certain persons, including the “O”ster, were completely dead without giving any decent opportunity for surrender. I don’t know if that’s true, but suspect that it was. I expect I’m at least as Liberal as our blog host, but I have to say that I’m glad they just shot the guy, rather than us having to go through the whole hypocritical, not to say surreal, business of “bringing him to justice.” A lot could be said; however, as in many other ways, Obama has gotten away with things people didn’t use to think presidents could get away with, because when you think about it seriously, it was really the correct thing to do. People who end up believing in their own hypocritical bullshit deserve not to succeed. People who don’t, frequently do. I’m glad we succeeded in this.

wjw February 1, 2013 at 9:37 pm

I think the Guardian commentary defined my own unease. When dealing with something this monstrous, not taking a position becomes complicity.

The director, however, has publicly stated that this is not the case. I think she thought she made a different movie from the one that I saw.

Plus of course the CIA and the administration have been very vocal that torture was not used in tracking Osama. If one cares to believe them, of course.

Mike Martin February 2, 2013 at 3:13 am

Seeing it tomorrow. Hope it’s as good as “The Hurt Locker!”

Mike Martin February 2, 2013 at 3:14 am

Or at least as good as “Point Break.”

Mike Moe February 2, 2013 at 3:19 am

Interesting review. Haven’t seen the movie yet (will probably wait for it to come to Netflix), but you’ve given me plenty of food for thought when I do see it.

Nobody…leaps off the Burj Khalifa with a fire HOUSE wrapped around his waist.

Somehow I think that would have the opposite of the desired effect… 😉

Mike Moe February 2, 2013 at 3:20 am

Hmmm…Apparently I don’t know the code for turning OFF italics.

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