Second Breakfast’s Second Opinion on Zero Dark Thirty


It happens, fairly frequently actually, that the various writers for this site all see the same movie. I know, imagine that. Professed film buffs all seeing the same movies. Insanity. Often, we have to negotiate who will review what movie, and the man at the top, the titular Rooster Illusion, tells us time and time again that it’s okay for two people to review the same film, as long as we have some new things to say. Even if we disagree on a few points, however, we never seem to disagree enough to justify a second review. For example, my review of Looper did not accurately reflect what Rooster Illusion thought of the movie, but we agreed on enough stuff that it didn’t matter. Another example, I wrote a full review of Skyfall that most of you will probably never read, because Rooster Illusion and I disagreed on only a few minor details. Again, I have a full review of Taken 2, but Mindless Action Mondays and I pretty much concur on how much that movie failed. Well, I’m happy to say that I finally saw a movie that warrants a second opinion. If you want to read what the Tuesday Zone said about it, check out the link below; if not, you’re not really hurting his ratings.

Zero Dark Thirty (2013)

Screen shot 2013-02-10 at 10.47.09 AM

Columbia Pictures
You can buy this!

The Plot: Osama bin Laden.

Director Kathryn Bigelow once again teams up with writer Mark Boal (both of whom won Oscars for their masterpiece The Hurt Locker) to tell us the story of how the CIA tracked down and (spoiler?) finally eliminated Osama bin Laden over the course of about ten years. Through the eyes of one determined agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), Bigelow and Boal hit all the major checkpoints along this historic manhunt, ranging from the well-publicized major terror events to the nitty-gritty, often brutal field work that finally got results.

Now, this is a film about recent, very politically charged events, and it was the subject of much CONTROVERSY. Said CONTROVERSY is likely what accounts for the film’s box office success, because people love to be CONTROVERSIAL, just ask my writing professor. Before I comment on the film’s CONTROVERSIAL elements, however, I’d like to pay a little time to the technical components, just so I don’t get carried away and forget about them.


Columbia Pictures

Unless you happen to be a perfectly rational individual with no investment whatsoever in the Oscars, you’re probably aware of all of the buzz Jessica Chastain has been getting. Indeed, Chastain delivers an excellent, sometimes startling performance as Maya, an agent gradually consumed by her singular obsession to capture one of the most hated men in recent decades. To be perfectly honest, though, I’m a little surprised that Chastain in such a heavy frontrunner. Much of what she does here is internal. She performs largely with her eyes and her facial muscles. She only shouts, like, three times. The Academy often has a hard time understanding quiet performances. They like shouting, much for the same reasons they like Spielberg.

What are you trying to communicate? Could you maybe shout it at me?

Columbia Pictures
What are you trying to communicate? Could you maybe shout it at me?

Chastain isn’t just quiet, though; she’s distant. At the start of the film, she’s easily relatable, but her character arc pulls her further and further away from the viewer. Maya exhibits less outward emotion as the film progresses and she becomes more obsessive. The result is that she is quite alienating for much of the film. At the end, she comes back to us, but she remains distant for quite some time. My colleague compared Maya’s character arc to that of Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner) from The Hurt Locker. Renner was also nominated for his role as likeable EOD specialist who is driven by his obsession with bombs and danger. That film opens with a quote, “War is a drug,” by Chris Hedges, which acts as the film’s thesis. Not a lot of people in the masses can connect with Sgt. James on this level, but he is never distant or alienating. His dialogue and mannerisms make him accessible and relatable, whereas Maya is entirely closed off. James bonds (sort of) with his fellow soldiers, so the audience bonds with him. After a certain point in Zero Dark Thirty, though, Maya doesn’t bond with anyone. That could be construed as a problem for the film, if the main character is remote, but I think that’s also kind of the point.

Ok, but now I actually can't tell.

Columbia Pictures
Ok, but now I actually can’t tell.

Chastain certainly deserves all the recognition she’s been receiving, but unfortunately she has overshadowed her supporting cast. Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Chris Pratt, and Joel Edgerton all give notable performances. Jason Clarke, I think, especially deserves some recognition for his role as Dan, another CIA agent on the case, and the man who has to (gets to?) do all the torturing, but more on that later.

As far as the directing goes, I think Bigelow didn’t have as much elbowroom as she did with The Hurt Locker. Much of the film takes place in offices or other small rooms, and there’s just nothing inspired about those scenes in terms of the directing. The acting and writing stay strong, but Bigelow clearly has trouble with scenes of people sitting and talking. It’s not that they’re badly directed; they’re just average. Bigelow doesn’t really get to shine as a director until the final segment of the film, when SEAL Team 6 executes its mission to finally get bin Laden. There’s a reason why so many people are singling out this sequence for praise and it’s not because it’s exciting. Here, we see Bigelow in her element. She does more character work with the placement of her camera in this sequence, when no one is talking and everyone is doing, than with any of the dialogue heavy scenes earlier in the film. I don’t want to say that Bigelow is afraid of talking, but she should maybe consider making a silent film. The best scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, and the best character development, are done without dialogue.

Remarkably, these guys are some of the most accessible characters in the film.

Columbia Pictures
Remarkably, these guys are some of the most accessible characters in the film.

Okay, now for the CONTROVERSY. The big issue surrounding this film concerns its scenes of torture. Everyone, on both sides of the political spectrum, has been complaining about the torture. It’s morally depraved; the United States would never use it as a means of interrogation, etc. Who’s to say? Here are the facts as presented by the film: terrorist commits act of terror; CIA captures terrorist; CIA tortures terrorist; CIA gets results. So is the film condoning torture? Is it encouraging it? I don’t know what Bigelow and Boal wanted to communicate with these scenes. Reread that sentence, because it’s important. It’s the only thing saving them, in fact. My point is that, like with The Hurt Locker, the personal politics of the filmmakers remain hazy. They show the torture, but they don’t glorify it. They don’t demonize it either, though; they’re just really frank about it. Anyway, it gets the job done.

Ah, but how could I write something like that? Have I been swayed? Have I fallen right into their CONTROVERSIAL little web of propagandist lies? Was their goal to make me shrug and take it in stride? Have they won? No, I don’t think so, because I don’t think, and this is the part that warrants this whole review as a counterpoint to the Tuesday Zone’s, that this film is propaganda. Dude, have you ever seen real propaganda? Triumph of the Will, maybe? Or literally any Sergei Eisenstein movie? I just watched Alexander Nevsky; that movie is only slightly subtler than Battleship Potemkin. Propaganda is traditionally defined as information of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view, which I don’t think Zero Dark Thirty does. Bigelow and Boal never ask the audience to support torture as a policy of state, but they do ask that one tries to understand the motivations of the people involved. I think torture is wrong, and I’m not sure if I would ever be able to do it myself, but I understand why the characters in this movie, under these circumstances, thought it was necessary.

Furthermore, there is no flag-waving in this movie. No one plays the national anthem. There are no stirring speeches, no pomp, no circumstance, no celebration, no preaching, and no campaigning. Bigelow does not glorify the torture, nor does she play up the final sequence as some big action scene. Again, I have no concept of her political affiliation, and that’s perfect.

And, man, that totally doesn't count.

Columbia Pictures
And, man, that totally doesn’t count.

Zero Dark Thirty is not a perfect film. The Tuesday Zone was right in observing that it doesn’t really hold up against The Hurt Locker, but it is a stern and honest film, and worthy of the recognition (and yes, CONTROVERSY) that it has been receiving.

14 thoughts on “Second Breakfast’s Second Opinion on Zero Dark Thirty

  1. Very nice, and even the spelling is controversial/contraversial! I haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty, but you are spot on about the politics of the Hurt Locker. Unlike many of her peers, Bigelow at least bothers to look from every point of view. She seems to me to point out that war and the hunt for Bin Laden are both very complex and they deserve our understanding, not our knee jerk reactions. Nice review!

  2. Fantastic review. Gripping, thrilling, and intense, Zero Dark Thirty is another very worthy contender for the Oscar race that puts you right in the action, especially with the immersible climax.

  3. I’m glad someone gave a counterpoint, as I took a huge extreme with my review. And you made a ton of good points. This movie warrants different readings.

    I will rebuttal though, that yes I have seen real propaganda films. But it’s important to remember that this is a different time, and subtlety takes a different form. I said it was propaganda because I have seen Eisenstein movies and ZDT uses similar techniques; they just manifest in a different form. The main argument would be the use of montage. Terrorist attack, torture sequence that leads to information, terrorist attack, torture sequence that leads to information, repeat. That’s classic use of montage to bias the viewer, isn’t it? So yes, I have seen an Eisenstein film. That was one of my main influences on the article.

    Moreover, you say that propaganda is made of biased information to push the viewer to a political viewpoint. I know that it’d be hard to imagine a world where Bin Laden isn’t considered monstrous, but think about the POVs we have. There is not a single moment that complicates the, “We good guys, they bad guys” viewpoint. Maybe the torture, but because we see a direct correlation between Maya’s growing comfort with it and her effectiveness at her job, I would argue that there is subtle emotional manipulation even at that level. Besides, you know that great Herzog quote?

    “Correct, the crimes are monstrous, but the perpetrators are just human beings who have done something senseless, violent, evil. They are still human, and they are not monsters.”

    ZDT would laugh at that concept. There is a monster out there, his name Bin Laden, and the good guys are going to do whatever they can to get him. Maybe you agree with that, but it’s still a politically biased viewpoint that doesn’t complicate modern political notions in the least. That was my problem.

    I will say, controversy is pretty damn fun, at least.

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