Ah, Oscar Season. All the big contenders that have yet to be released–at least in my rinky-dink hometown–are finally starting to come out. I can almost hear the trees crying from the mass poster reprintings that will now include the words “Nominated for Best Picture!” Much like The Hurt Locker (2009), Katheryn Bigelow’s fantastic previous effort that was nominated for (and went on to win) Best Picture, her new movie Zero Dark Thirty is making the rounds across cinemas all over and garnering a lot of praise. So what can you expect from this talented director’s recent outing? Well, let’s start out with the basics.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Plot: A dramatization of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, ZDT follows CIA Agent Maya
(Jessica Chastain) from 2001, when Bin Laden became one of the most wanted men in the world, to 2011, when he was finally found and killed.
If you haven’t been living in a cave for the past twelve or so years, you know this story, more or less. You know how it started and where it ended. So how does Bigelow make this into a movie if the audience already knows the ending?
The key is Maya, who becomes the emotional core of the movie. Ultimately this is her journey, as she follows any lead she can to get from the beginning to the end. Overall she’s a well-developed character and played excellently by Jessica Chastain, who has managed to become one of the best working actresses in a matter of two years. Her intensity and intelligence here are central, and I never got the feeling that she was masculinized, which can happen with female protagonists in these kinds of movies. That was refreshing. Maya starts as a newbie and very quickly becomes a woman married to her job.
All the performances in this movie are solid, and you’ll recognize a lot of faces (including, I’d like to add, Elizabeth Bennet from the BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries). The screenwriter, Mark Boal (who also wrote The Hurt Locker) gives the cast an excellent script to work with, full of mostly realistic dialogue and strong forward momentum. I’ve heard complaints that the middle lags compared to the beginning and end, but I disagree. I was engaged throughout.
The direction is also pretty solid, which isn’t terribly surprising considering how well-directed The Hurt Locker was. But as much as The Hurt Locker was great and Zero Dark Thirty is well made, the former lessens the achievement of the latter. I got the feeling that Bigelow realized she won Best Director for a political/wartime thriller about a character whose life is their job, filmed by shaky cameras and lined with action set-pieces. It feels like she shrugged and thought, well, hell, if it worked once….
That’s not necessarily an awful thing, as a lot of directors repeat themes, but this felt like a lack of originality. Maya is based on a real person, but she didn’t feel that separate from the main character in The Hurt Locker, and Bigelow seems unaware that while shaky cameras worked with the atmosphere and themes of The Hurt Locker, it does not work for every single scene in this movie. Moreover, those aspects all worked in a film about fictional characters because the setting enhanced the plot and illuminated the characters. That’s not the case here; often, Bigelow’s tricks serve to dramatize the manhunt for Bin Laden rather than reveal intricacies about the narrative and its characters.
People are freaking out about how the Academy didn’t nominate Bigelow for Best Director but, after seeing this movie, that decision makes complete sense to me. They’d be nominating her for the same award for doing almost the exact same thing.
So as a movie, Zero Dark Thirty is well made, but this is where I’m in a pickle as someone who lives in the United States in 2013 and has a brain (I think; I’ve never actually seen it, to be fair). As much as I would like to ignore the divisive politics of a movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, it’s impossible with ZDT. That doesn’t include the friend I saw this with, who said he was desensitized to the politics, but damn it I’m trying to make a point here.
If Bigelow wanted a story separate from a political context, then she wouldn’t have made a movie about one of the biggest political events in the world from this century. Thus, I can’t talk about this movie without considering what it says about the controversial issues it depicts. Bigelow and Boal released a statement saying that some of the more controversial bits, namely the several extended sequences of torture, aren’t laudatory but rather pieces of a whole manhunt that led to capturing Bin Laden. Fair enough.
But Bigelow is not a hack director. She knows what she’s doing. Thus, it’s entirely relevant that the first half of the movie (about 80 minutes) follows this exact recipe: Terrorist attack, scenes of torture leading to information, terrorist attack, scenes of torture leading to information, terrorist attack, scenes of torture leading to information, terrorist attack. I’m not joking, and that’s not an exaggeration. When a director directly juxtaposes a scene of people killing civilians followed by the torture of people we’re told are affiliated with the attackers (despite no due process blah blah blah we get it I’m a naive college
liberal), then she is directly trying to influence how we perceive these events.
To rub it in, after the fourth terrorist attack, there’s a sequence where they don’t try to use torture but rather good ol’ fashioned espionage. You know what happens? The incompetency and rashness of an agent leads to the death of many. The rest of the movie shows the agency struggling to gather intel now that they can’t torture. If Bigelow didn’t mean this, then she has some very firm subconscious ideas about the politics of this movie. I think she meant every bit of it. And I have a specific word for a movie that manipulates the audience to support the harsh treatment of people perceived as the enemy: propaganda.
Maya follows the emotional arc that the movie wants us to follow. She’s initially disquieted by the torture. Quickly, though, when she sees how effective it is and gets increasingly upset by terrorist attacks, she’s a-okay with it and wants blood. She wants Osama dead because he’s a murderer. Then, with all this buildup, Bigelow takes the raid at Abbottabad (where Bin Laden was found) and makes it a giant action set-piece. And it’s an incredible scene, which isn’t surprising to anyone who knows how well Bigelow films action sequences. We meet the squad that’s going on to kill the baddies and the entire ordeal is long and tense. How can you not root for these guys, who are all decently nice and going after the Big Bad Wolf? Bigelow, whether she admits it or not, is not separating herself from the material. She’s not merely depicting what happened. By having the movie play out as it does and showing us only the American perspectives, she is inherently not being objective about it. She is sending us a message.
I’ll give Zero Dark Thirty credit. It made me care, think, and rant to my friend. While the worst thing a movie can be is forgettable, and ZDT is anything but that, I still think this movie has to be looked at as a product of the time, and it’s not a very good product. It’s one that supports a specific ideology while claiming it doesn’t. It’s one that tries to make us emotional and afraid, then show us something horrible so we go, “Yeah, I guess that was necessary.” A lot movies try to manipulate the viewer into feeling a certain way, be it through music, montage, whatever, but the difference is that Zero Dark Thirty is a movie that came out in 2012 about events that are still extremely relevant, and I think that this makes the manipulation a lot more insidious.
This is a divisive movie, as you can probably tell. I encourage everyone to see it for themselves, because this is very clearly my interpretation, but I think that Zero Dark Thirty is, ultimately, a very well-made propaganda-lite film. I even have to question the merits of it being “well-made” though, because as much as all the elements are good, I can’t help but feel we’ve seen it all before. See ZDT and feel free to come back and tell me off, but pay careful attention the entire way through. Zero Dark Thirty is complex, troublesome, and thought-provoking; perhaps not in the way Bigelow and Boal intended, but it’s all those things none the less.