The Film: Zero Dark Thirty
The Year: 2012
The Plot: A behind the scenes look at the search for Osama Bin Laden, essentially. We specifically follow it through the eyes of CIA Agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) who more or less finds the terrorist leader through scary, unblinking focus.
The Issues: America as PTSD survivor- While never specifically spelled out, the signs are all over every scene. Everyone is jittery, paranoid, paralyzed, hypervigilant, or utterly shut down. Mix that in with even the slightest knowledge of how America has reacted to September 11th and you have a microcosm mirroring the macrocosm.
Is Torture Effective?- This is the issue that caught the ire of many including actors like Ed Asner and Martin Sheen and journalists like Glenn Greenwald (sidenote: I think Greenwald and I would probably agree on most things but I find his approach to issues so off-putting, I often find myself almost compelled to disagree with him).
In fairness, Zero is almost pathologically resistant to presenting any kind of opinion at all on torture. While it is true that torture produces some of the information that leads to bin Laden’s execution, there remain questions about whether it could have been discovered other ways –and perhaps even earlier by those approaches—and, even if it would have taken longer by other means, does that in and of itself justify torture. In other words, does getting information through such brutal means make using those means ok? Obviously plenty would yes, but the film cagely refuses to ever plant its flag in either the a.) yes, because we needed that info and now we have it or b.) no, there is almost nothing that could be gained from this that could justify the discarding and discounting of the enemy’s and our own humanity camps.
How Effective is the U.S. Period?- Even if one completely brushing past the torture question, this entire film operates as a meditation on whether the United States is any good at gathering and utilizing information to protect itself and find its enemies. One of the key pieces of information that leads to bin Laden being found is heard early in the movie (and therefore years before the Navy Seals end the terrorist leader’s life). It sits unused and unconsidered for years because a combination of option paralysis, institutional bias, interdepartment jockeying, and who knows what else. In the end, it is not hard to see a version of this where the US succeeds in its mission despite of its vast operations, not because of it.
In this way, oddly, Bigelow presents a political philosophy that is not unlike the one that informs and saturates Michael Bay films. The government as a whole is a messy cesspool of corruption and incompetence, but America survives thanks to individual heroes.
The Nature of Violence to “End” Conflict- This mostly comes from Chastain’s final scene, her breakdown after identifying bin Laden’s body. It should be a triumph for her and instead she is crushed.
The Opinion: Zero Dark Thirty is a bit of a weird beast. Begun prior to bin Laden’s execution, the movie then incorporated that real world event into the script, creating the film we all ended up seeing. I am not sure if that contributed to the very episodic nature of the film or not, but it most likely exacerbated it.
Unlike a lot of films, though, the episodic unfurling of the movie works. It conveys well both the passage of time and the sense of confusion and shifting rules that defined and defines post-9/11 America. Much as she did with BLUE STEEL, Bigelow has constructed a film that mirrors a character’s experience of the world. It just so happens in this case that the “character” is the sort of collective United States and it’s post-tragedy freak out moving to post-tragedy funk.
Also, no review of the film should pass without mentioning Jason Clarke who moves from scruffy torturer to suited political type, an encapsulation of the changes in modern warfare where the true “fight” is performed by civilians without clear allegiances beyond to, maybe, the mission.
The Conclusion: A story of patriotism and heroics that nonetheless does not hesitate to indulge in the dark ugly side of what we did to catch our latest boogeyman.