Zero Dark Thirty (2012, Kathryn Bigelow)
Talking about Zero Dark Thirty is tricky. The temptation is so very great to skirt past its content and merit as a film and on into other things that really have nothing to do with it: my loathsome experience seeing it theatrically in January (watch the first five minutes of “Colonel Homer” and you’ve basically got it) which made me so furious about people talking in the theater I felt I was close to retracting my MST3K fandom; the perceived snubs of the widely critically drooled-over film by the Academy, and in turn the critics’ curiously intimate relationship with it (but also the pundits’; one friend’s At the Movie with Glenn Greenwald joke rings true); and in turn, the controversy over the film’s depiction of torture — its effectiveness or lack thereof. Sadly, any one of those three essays would be more fun to write and read than the one you’re about to see, and that’s because the film itself is simply not very interesting at all.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave (did you “get” that “joke”?), you’re aware that this film is a meticulous procedural about, yes, the Hunt for Osama bin Laden, the Greatest Manhunt of Our Age, culminating in one of the most widely publicized and speculated-over military operations in American history. Director Kathryn Bigelow, she of the harrowing if haphazard The Hurt Locker, scores in a big way at the outset with a black screen and the sobering sounds of 911 calls on the morning of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 — it’s a handy, shorthand way to signify why the operation being documented mattered, why it struck a chord. That Bigelow then sticks us in the middle of a lot of CIA jargon and denies us a considerable amount of exposition about the people and organizations involved is a choice, and not a great one, that aims to suggest to us the mounatin of impenetrable evidence and frustrating dead ends that plague an investigation like this. You might perhaps think of Zodiac and its dual fixations: obsession and dissatisfaction.
Those are both felt by Jessica Chastain’s Maya, a fictional character but evidently based on a real woman, a young recruit into the agency whose decade-long single-minded focus was laid upon the capturing of OBL; she’s both a built-in icon of earnest dedication and a vessel for an audience with a maybe unhealthy hunger for, er, justice. The mass confusion and shroud of secrecy won’t be news to anyone who’s read the U.S. government’s 9/11 commission report, but the general film audience may find itself adrift. That’d be okay if not for the fact that Bigelow never really gets beyond the superficial nature of the story she’s trying to tell, and certainly neither does Boal, despite his “connections” and supposed privileged information. I have little doubt that the two of them were as immersed in these matters as Maya is in the film, but the truth is frankly that this is a relatively conventional political-action thriller, closer to fucking Clear and Present Danger than to any kind of investigative revelation on a level with Zodiac or Breach or even The Insider or Quiz Show. It might be a near-documentary retelling of real events, but it doesn’t really make anything of those events and certainly fails to extract much of human depth from them. Maya, who’s on site or on call for a remarkable number of major events in the al-Qaeda world (the Marriott bombing in 2008, the disastrous suicide bombing at Camp Chapman), is a cipher whose arc is very simply being determined to do something and then doing it, and we never come to know her because it doesn’t seem there’s much there to know.
At least some of this is likely a casting problem. Chastain is a fine actress (see Take Shelter for evidence) but she’s a strange choice for this part — not only is she portraying a person who seems an empty shell beyond her career, she’s forced to do so far out of her nuanced, naturalistic element as a kind of pseudo-action flick stereotype with all the accompanying arguments with superiors and such baffling moves as a speech about being “the motherfucker” and scrawling numbers on a window with lipstick. She’s never as believable in this purportedly meaty role as, for instance, Laura Linney was as an equally dedicated CIA agent in Breach, and her line readings are often completely off center emotionally. She hits a few notes right (like her measured, struggling reaction to the torture in the early sequences) but mostly misses: the professional jealousy, the excitement over new leads, the tentative friendship with fellow agent Jennifer Ehle, it all seems tentative and misplaced and like four or five different performances, all in the wrong movie. The final shot, in which she finally breaks down after viewing OBL’s body, doesn’t land at all — like everything she does here, it seems forced and unearned. Frankly, I want to understand why we’re praising her performance here so highly but I just don’t.
I’d also like to understand why Zero Dark Thirty has renewed our national conversation about torture — hardly one I mind us having, but maybe not in this particular context. The film does very little to deserve the consternation, if anything skirting past any direct editorializing on the matter with the purse-lipped precision of a well-practiced politician. Torture is shown to be only dubiously effective, and the intelligence community is shown to be overly reliant on it, and the film takes no stance, at least no stance that a casual observer of U.S. foreign policy wouldn’t. And I’m sensitive on this point — I’m deeply troubled by the effect Bush-era policies had on our national character, but Zero Dark‘s actual torture content is limited to an admittedly excruciating look at how terrible and humiliating the acts themselves are and then a blip of a conversation centering mostly on the moral ambiguity that the film tries desperately to become “about.” That carries over to the depiction of the bin Laden assassination itself as an anticlimactic non-event; it happens and then it’s over, in the tense Silence of the Lambs night-goggles operation. No, the film doesn’t make time to humanize its antagonist like even United 93 did, but it hardly ends on a note of Americana cheerleading — the overriding emotion at the finale is, was this really worth it? All the human hours and suffering and loss of life for this? But even that is something of an easy way out — by the time we’ve gone through Bigelow’s various horrorshow bits and detective mumbo jumbo we’re so disconnected from the reason bin Laden has been sought out that unlike Maya and unlike a lot of Americans, pro and con, we feel nothing when the man is killed.
I actually wish Bigelow’s film did take the hard line on something, because that would be a genuine risk. If, for instance, it unequivocally depicted torture as being effective in capturing and killing bin Laden and in turn also depicted said killing and capture as an unquestionable victory for America and the world, then it might force us to examine something about ourselves and our country. Of course it would be mistaken by many as jingoistic, but that’s the kind of risk that American filmmakers used to be willing to take. In its misplaced quest for “ambiguity,” Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t say much of anything worthwhile — especially as a political film, as a portrait of internal or syematic corruption. It implies things but then contradicts them and is so stubborn to take any kind of a moral or historical position that it seems generic. Indeed, that’s to the extent that it stuns me it proved such a hot potato. As an action film, it might be unusually intelligent but it’s awash in so many traditions and tropes of the genre — which, it should be noted, The Hurt Locker was not — that it comes across as deeply banal. As cinema it’s disposable, a relic of a weird and already gone decade. It can’t imagine it will have much merit of value ten years from now.