T he first thing to say about ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is that it is not a “pro torture” film.
Over the last few months there have been lots of articles written about the supposed glamorization of torture within the movie. Now, torture is depicted in the movie, and there are two points to be made about this:
1) It is never the focal point of the movie.
2) The actual scenes themselves are handled with little to no emotional/moral standpoint – it is just, as they say, “a matter of fact.”
This lack of sympathy/empathy is simultaneously the strong point and the downside to renowned director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow up to the oscar winning ‘The Hurt Locker.’ A film, which did have a strong emotional center as well as a stinging political tail. Whereas ‘Zero Dark’ seems to have neither. It’s a very cold and precise picture. A style which is very difficult to make work cinematically.
Stanley Kubrick was a master at producing the cold and clinical film. The difference being that Kubrick’s ultimate purpose was to make you feel something- even if it was deep within your subconscious.
Kubrick used cinema to affect you visually, and thus indescribably. Subconsciously. His films often had a veneer of being cold and clinical (see, 2001) – but it was all part of the design. You may not have connected emotionally with the characters, but you walked out changed forever. You walked out more intelligent then when you walked in.
If this is the hallmark of cold and clinical cinema – then Bigelow fails massively.
She merely aims to present the facts – in the order they occurred – and just hopes that you will find it naturally gripping and intense. I don’t completely feel that she fails on this level – but I’ve asked myself a lot since seeing the film: is there anything more to ‘Zero Dark Thirty? Than cheap thrills?
There has to be. I just don’t know what they are. I see strands of a feminist plot-line. I see bits and pieces of a investigation into military corruption. I see some moral questions raised, such as ‘is the hunt for terrorists worth it?’ – but there just isn’t enough for you as an audience member to make a investment. It’s not even out of line to suggest that Jessica Chastain’s Maya has zero character (she gives a great performance though- so it helps)
‘Zero Dark Thrity’ is the kind of film that you are really bored all the way throughout, but are too afraid to tell your friends afterwards – because maybe they will think you are stupid. Are you stupid?
There isn’t really much to add to this question: other than the film is designed to make you feel smart. It doesn’t necessarily have to be smart to do this. Ambiguity and a cold clinical distance are things that filmmakers have hidden behind since the medium was created.
Ultimately you walk out with a sense of accomplishment. You didn’t walk out of the film, you followed it. You put the pieces together. To give Bigelow some credit, this film is clearly made by a smart person. A person who thinks you are as smart as she is. She also loves thrillers, loves action movies – and quite clearly loves ‘Homeland.’ (A show which does the very same things the movie does – but much, much better).
Which brings us to my next point: the plot itself: which presents the hunt for ‘Osama Bin Laden’ in (more often than not) excessive and unneeded amounts of detail. Which is impressive in a “well, look how much research we did” kind of way. But, importantly, not in a “cinema was the only place to tell this story” kind of way.
We see the hunt through the perspective of the hard-as-nails CIA agent Maya, played by the always excellent Jessica Chastain, and good performances are all over the film, from James Gandolfini to Mark Strong – but the down side is that having such a high profile cast goes against maintaining the realism – and from this I would like to move onto the fact that most of us already know the basics of the Bin Laden hunt – well at the very least we know that America got him – and for me this is the real issue here. We are meant to be engaged with the plight to get him, and be on the edge of our seat – but in the end it comes down to everybody in the audience already knowing the outcome.
I guess it’s going to be difficult to reconcile the truth with the fiction, especially when you have all these famous actors moving us (over three hours) towards a foregone (and strangely empty) conclusion. And that’s the thing; Bigelow is such a fine thriller/action filmmaker that she overcomes all these issues with the strength of her craft during the raid sequence alone. Without her filmmaking expertise – ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ would be nothing.
The cinematic equivalent of “Yup, we got him.”
The question to ask yourself, is this something more than a surface level thriller? Certain scenes have weight, and there is a certain urgency to everything. But in the end, it is the way that you interpret the film, what you bring to it -in the end that is what you get. Bigelow allows you to come to your own conclusions about everything. And for that I’m grateful.
Even if I got “nothing” from it.