Dec 24, 2012
Zero Dark Thirty
The Hurt Locker is a much better movie. So is Paul Greengrass's United 93, the greatest film ever made about 9/11. It's worth comparing it to Zero Dark Thirty, because Greengrass avoids every single pitfall that makes Zero Dark Thirty a problematic entertainment. For one, he uses no recognizable movie stars; glamorous faces do not remind us that this is only a movie and egregious liberties have been taken with the story. He also eschews the conventional single hero narrative for a fragmented "you are there" style, which shows massive government incompetence, as well as moments of individual courage. Perhaps because he is not American, he was able to sidestep the trite, incurable hero syndrome that seems mandatory in every Hollywood movie. Hence, United 93 honors history by rendering it as faithfully, realistically and intimately as possible. Its impact is devastating. True, nobody saw it, having no stars and dealing head on with a terribly painful collective moment; whereas Zero Dark Thirty will be much more commercially successful. One, because it is about triumph, not loss; and two, precisely because of its lack of authenticity. Even The Hurt Locker, a great American anti-war film, has more conviction and more outrage than ZDT.
My first problem with ZDT, and a cardinal sin in film, is that I was bored for a very long time before things got interesting, which only happens in the last third of the film, when they finally move to capture Bin Laden. ZDT seems to take as long as it took the US to nail Bin Laden. I wouldn't mind the procedural if it were riveting, but it isn't. It is plodding. Scene after scene dutifully documents the torture techniques utilized by the US in the war against terror. It's a deeply uncomfortable laundry list: conveniently outside of the purview of our laws, CIA agents use waterboarding, torture prisoners with sleep deprivation and hardcore heavy metal, stuff them in tiny boxes, hang them for hours, humiliate them with dog collars, and play mind games. The main torturer, played by Jason Clarke as if he was warming up for his daily tennis match, is deliberately made to be a very casual American dude who refers to his victims as "bro". I applaud the fact that we are not in for mustache twirling villains, but where is the bete noire in his soul? Are the filmmakers saying everyone can become a torturer if the justifications are strong enough?
Critics are hailing ZDT's obfuscations as moral ambiguity. I beg to differ. The movie is afraid of its own point of view, which is actually unclear. Critics are celebrating the mere fact that ZDT dares portray the issue of American torture (as if we didn't know plenty about it already), but the problem lies in how it is portrayed. I do not think that the movie glorifies torture, but I'm not sure that it condemns it. In the end, it isn't clear whether the film infers that torture helped get information that led to Bin Laden's capture or not. This is a problem. Granted, it would have been revolting to have Maya, the CIA agent heroine (Jessica Chastain, miscast), give epic speeches about the evils of torture, the kind of wishful fairy dust that Hollywood sprinkles around in its issue movies to feel better about itself. Alas, the script is content to show her silent discomfort as she attends some of the torture sessions, yet not much later in the film she daintily prods a torturer to slap a detainee. We never see how she really feels about this. Is she just following orders? Does she think the means justify the ends? It would have been interesting if we saw her take a stand, any stand. But ZDT is as wishy washy about the torture issue as the central character. And herein lies the problem: this is a contrived entertainment that takes something that happened in reality and makes it into a formula with a single heroine, therefore stripping it of any legitimacy or authenticity. It doesn't want to be Rambo, but it doesn't have the guts to go the other way. It seems as if director Kathryn Bigelow and writer/producer Mark Boal are torn between presenting a realistic portrayal of the hunt for Bin Laden, or crafting a conventional movie narrative. Had they chosen the first option, Zero Dark Thirty could have been a much stronger film. But the decision to center the story in a single heroine dooms the movie. Big deal if she is a woman. She is utterly boring as a character, just a reminder that this is a fantasy fiction based in reality, and not a film which really aims to explore the complexity of this war.
Except for the fact that she is an obsessive workaholic without a life (bo-ring), we don't really know who CIA agent Maya is. It is said by other characters that she is a killer, How do we know this? She works long hours, stares a lot at screens, and is a pest to her superiors. I did not believe her character for a second. Not because she is a woman, but because, in operations like this, it is ludicrous to pretend that ONE relentless person, dead set against everyone in the CIA and the rest of the world, was responsible for the capture of that maniac. It's just immature. And don't get me started on the final frame, of her sitting by herself on a big ass military plane, crying. What is this supposed to mean? America is sad for all the torture?
The best parts of ZDT are the actual action sequences towards the capture of Bin Laden, precisely executed both by Bigelow and by the guys who play the commandos that got it done. As in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow is good at relying how soldiers actually communicate in the middle of an operation. Minimal words, all instructions. The way bombings occur, without warning, as it is in real life, is jolting. Boal and Bigelow do everything in their power to show decorum and restrain at the storming of Bin Laden's compound. Everything else reeks of fakeness. Cringeworthy plot devices creep in: it is not enough to want to capture the barbaric mastermind who engineered the loss of thousands of innocent people all over the world. As this is a movie, Maya has to have a personal reason to vow to nail Bin Laden. This turns out to be the death of some of her CIA colleagues in the car bombing of a US base in Afghanistan. Puhleeze. Albeit suspenseful, this sequence is so telegraphed, so movie-like, that one thinks that if CIA agents are stupid enough to let a car breach inspection into an American military base in that hellish part of the world, they deserve what they got coming.
Meanwhile, the filmmakers have Maya, this supposed "killer" agent, sit obediently in the back at all important meetings as the boys make plans, and then when she opens her mouth, she says a one liner that strains credulity. For a "killer" agent, she behaves like a schoolgirl, petulantly scribbling in her bosses' window the number of days that go by without capturing Bin Laden. Puhleeze.
Then there are bizarre casting choices. Were American actors afraid to make this movie? The main torturer is played by Jason Clarke with a clear Australian accent. I spent half the movie trying to figure out if Australians were farmed out by the CIA to do our torture for us. My current boyfriend, Mark Strong, does an impeccable American accent, as does Joel Edgerton (another Aussie). But why cast a British actor, Stephen Dillane, as an American national security advisor? He sounds like he's ready for tea and crumpets. This is the CIA we are talking about. Everyone needs to sound like John Wayne. As for Jessica Chastain, she tries her best but is a movie star, and hence completely wrong for the role, for this and other reasons. Remember, very few people had seen Jeremy Renner when he starred in The Hurt Locker.This makes a huge difference: better movie = less box office. In an ideal, ageless world, someone like Frances McDormand or Annette Bening would play Maya. Someone with ovaries of titanium. Someone who can look you in the eye and make you unravel. Alas.
It is well known that the filmmakers had access to some people in the government. This seems to have fettered their imagination. This movie is more interesting for all the stuff it leaves out. Was it ever discussed if Bin Laden should be captured alive and brought to trial or was it, as the movie shows, a fait accompli to get him killed? I would have loved to see this conundrum dramatized. The CIA agents in the movie don't seem to have an opinion, pro or against, of what their superiors are asking them to do. There is no conflict, no dialectic, they are just executors. This is extremely problematic, as in foot soldiers that commit atrocities and chalk them up to just following orders.
Hence, I find it rather revolting that some critics have decided to bestow a Best Film of the Year award upon this confused movie, which leaves out all sort of interesting questions in favor of an impoverished, oversimplified narrative. I find it rather repulsive for a movie to be awarded accolades just for owning up to America's unsavory policies without having the balls to have a point of view about them, either for or against. It is also pathetic to overpraise a movie just because it deals with a difficult topic in a way that isn't Rambo. This sets a very low bar.