With Kathryn Bigelow's latest film, DETROIT, opening wide recently, I am revisiting this project that I sadly left unfinished several years earlier. This installment has been edited to remove a sidebar about a journalist that, while accurate to my feelings, seemed out of place and unnecessary, a brief discussion of how a particular theme is even more relevant after the 2016 Presidential election, and the inclusion of a section exploring Bigelow's style evolution that will be picked up with increased depth in future installments.
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. In the years since the film’s release, this is typically what gets raised the moment the film is brought up.
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 –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? Obviously plenty would yes, but the film cagely refuses to ever plant its flag in either the “yes, because we needed that info and now we have it” or “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. Intelligence Community, 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, interdepartmental 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.
This theme is given further relevance watching it now as our current President has developed a fairly antagonist relationship with the intelligence gathering bodies in the United States, often openly questions their competency, and has repeatedly claimed that he has more or better information than they do, inserting himself into “it is the individual that saves America” theme noted just above.
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 its post-tragedy freak out moving to post-tragedy funk.
Jessica Chastain, however, stands in contrast to this, creating a sort of parallel narrative for the many Americans who found their own patriotism sparked and energized by the 9/11 attacks only to be forced to confront that the country that they felt a renewed connection to, in many ways, did not exist after that September day; that the U.S. that was willing to suspend rule of law, to engage in profiling, to use torture, was not the place they signed on to protect. Although she proves “triumphant” the last image we are given of her to ponder is her breaking down a plane home and the cry is not one of relief or pride.
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.
Finally, this continues an evolution of style which began in THE HURT LOCKER—a movie I have not yet discussed but chronologically came first—and DETRIOT, the movie I intend to discuss next week. Bigelow until LOCKER had been a very stylized filmmaker. She often adapted to the setting—compare STEEL to, say, last week’s featured movie K19 to see how they are both stylized but in appropriate to the story ways—but she always had a flair and significant interest in aesthetics.
She is no “style-less,” per se, in ZERO, but it is a much less art directed affair. She pulls back significantly, trading the immediacy of her early work for a more cold and unblinking perspective. It portrays the lens as a more objective observer, something more akin to a documentary camera as opposed to a fictional film one. There remains no doubt she is very conscious of shot selection—angle, distance, light, and so on—but is now doing to create a world that feels mundane rather than heightened which often has the effect of making the violence more shocking and stomach turning.
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.