Sunday, January 20, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: It Took Me a Week to Write This

Holy shitballs.

I loved this movie.

The media coverage Zero Dark Thirty has had surrounding its release is interesting. Liberals claimed it endorsed torture. Conservatives claimed it endorsed the Obama Administration. Politicians say the film portrays inaccurately the connection between torture and eventually finding bin Laden, and they allege filmmakers were granted improper access to classified information. I think people are conflating their political opinions about U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan with their thoughts about this movie. I came away agreeing with this review, which concludes that the filmmaker attempted to tell the straight story. Then this week, Kathryn Bigelow wrote a response to the controversy in the L.A. Times, which confirms her aims, and elegantly. Basically, just because you make a movie ABOUT a topic or practice does not mean that you ENDORSE that topic or practice. You would think it would be obvious.

One of the hurdles to get over with Zero Dark Thirty is that it condenses into just under three hours what took over a decade to accomplish. I think the filmmakers did a good job of guiding us through the timeline, but no matter how you slice it, the time compression is tricky to get your head around.

Another thing that's been problematic for me is the dark fascination I have with 9/11 and the bin Laden manhunt. I've written about 9/11 before and reviewed 9/11-themed movies. I think my interest is fairly normal and human. And, I dare say, when Americans found out Seal Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden in a compound in rural Pakistan, and a single soldier put the bullet in his head, we all imagined the scene. It became a movie the moment it hit CNN. I mean, not everyone wanted to see the death picture. I, personally, chose not to look at the picture. But I was fascinated by the details of the operation. I don't know if that makes me weird or if that's just my own personal flavor of voyeuristic catharsis. I think it's something I share with a lot of people, but that doesn't make it at all noble.

I think it's important going into a movie like this, based on real events, to acknowledge the potential for dramatization, and to try to look rationally at historical fact versus Hollywood. As we came out of the theater, we laughed about the real CIA agent was probably not as pretty as Jessica Chastain, who is beautiful in a way that is sculptural and otherworldly. But when I think of the young, driven, ambitious, power-motivated people who flock to Washington in their 20s and 30s, it's not an ugly crew, honestly. They dress in suits, walk fast, and look good in J. Crew and Burberry. It's a breed of humans we have in this country that's unique to our capital.

There's another pinnacle breed of human spotlighted in the film: the elite soldier. The ones we send to do things like kill our nation's number one enemy. They have beards, they live unusual lives, to put it mildly, and they face intense, scary stuff. They're our version of Hercules and Jason. They are in our national mythology now--and they mostly remain anonymous. The soldier that shot bin Laden. The CIA agent that opened the body bag and identified him. The operation leader that gave the confirmation, "Geronimo."

It definitely helped seeing Zero Dark Thirty in a theater with surround sound. Film nerds have a lot to rejoice about with what was done with sound in this movie, from the music to the dogs and coyotes barking, the crack-crack sounds of gunfire, the muted helicopter blades and when their beating thump rises and falls. The movie opens with a black screen, so you're sitting in total movie theater darkness, then the sounds of 9/11 calls from the towers start to play. It felt a lot like an installation at a museum or memorial. Very intense. Then we dive right into the torture.

The torture scenes are not fun to watch. And I get it - it's a cognitive dissonance to watch a movie for entertainment when that movie contains torture scenes based on torture that was actually carried out in real life. But good entertainment is not just fun, it's thought-provoking, right? And although I know many people are passionate about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's no longer really top-of-mind. I think Zero Dark Thirty brought the story back to light, touching on complex topics, and dealing with reality while still conforming to the tropes of compelling storytelling. After all - we do not go to the theater to watch a big-screen version of Frontline. If you are against the wars and don't like looking at images of war, don't see this movie. It's fairly simple.

For one thing, the torture is not directly what leads to bin Laden as the movie tells it. The detainee holds up to the torture and continues to give the agents misinformation. They don't torture the guy until he gives up information. They trick him into thinking he blacked out and told them sensitive information. It's a technicality, but still. It's not until Chastain's characters connects the dots by going back and reviewing video of detainee interviews that she formulates a new theory that leads to bin Laden's courier. The bottom line is that torture has played a role in our government's handling of the war on terror. To me, the film did not condone the use of torture or condemn it, it merely included torture in the story. Because torture was part of the story, on screen and in real life.

In fact, the film makes a point of showing Obama on TV saying "we don't torture" right after a bunch of torture scenes, highlighting the government's jumbled and at times hypocritical handling of this war. Besides the fact that the torture in the movie doesn't necessarily work, the film also shows that it's not the fastest way to the target, it's inhumane, cruel, and horrific. It shows CIA agents being berated for the awful job they're doing of getting useful information. It takes a decade to get their heads on straight about anything on the ground.

The most important takeaway for me was the film's feminism. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. Jessica Chastain said to Kathryn Bigelow in her Golden Globes acceptance speech, upon receiving the award for best actress,

You've said that filmmaking for you is not about breaking gender roles but when you make a film that allows your character to disobey the conventions of Hollywood, you've done more for women in cinema than you take credit for.

Among those conventions broken in Zero Dark Thirty: a female main character in a traditionally male profession; a female character who is more than competent in that profession; a female main character who calls out her colleagues and superiors when they're wrong, female and male alike; a female main character who doesn't suffer fools, pull punches, or hesitate to speak her mind in pursuit of the truth. Case in point? When Leon Panneta, director of the CIA at the time, asks who found the Abbottabad compound while he weighs the agents' proposed ambush, Maya says "I'm the motherfucker who found this place." Boom. It's sad but true: You just don't see women saying that shit on the big screen. Something like that is what earns Bigelow the respect I have for her.

This was a straight-out entertaining movie to watch. Once the helicopters took off for Abbottabad, I was completely engrossed and wrapped up in the suspense of the climax. The final third of the movie is its greatest strength. Now for some final critiques:

Spoilers below...

I initially viewed one of Maya's lines of dialogue as a clunker, and something of a flaw in her character. When talking with one of the operatives who is reluctant to risk his men to investigate Maya's lead, she tells him, "A lot of my friends have been killed looking for this guy. I believe I was spared so I could finish the job." This is a notable instance of the movie leaving the realm of factual accounts and straying into the realm of storytelling. It can be seen as a weakness in the dialogue, based on the whether or not you are convinced that the character would say those words. However...and I think this is a cool interpretation of the line, you could interpret this as her saying what she needed to say to her boots-on-the-ground counterpart to get him to collect the intelligence she needed to track down the courier. And it works. Next thing you know, he's doing what she wants. The same kind of manipulation was applied in the interrogation rooms. In the movie, feds were screaming at agents about their failure to prevent acts of terrorism. They were being berated. Find weapons. Find terrorists. Prevent attacks. The strategic response to 9/11 was fumbling, desperate, at times intrepid, and at times misguided. All of that makes Maya's dogged adherence to her investigation that much more interesting.

I think the film succeeds in describing how little was and still is known about the cultures and history of the Middle Eastern countries involved in this war. The scenes in Pakistan are aptly chaotic, a swirling, dizzying array of people, vehicles, literally driving in circles around the American characters. It draws parallels between the Cold War and modern day conflicts and how much things have changed.

Another flaw we discussed in the car on the way home was Chastain's tearful final scene. We mostly agreed that it seemed either over the top, or made the story too much about Maya and not about finding bin Laden. On further thought, I felt that showing Maya having an emotional release on her C-17 ride away from Pakistan, similar to the shots of the burning helicopter left behind the Abbottabad compound walls, marked an artful bookend to the story. The latter looked to me like a funeral pyre, to be even more Greek tragedy about it. It symbolizes the wreckage left behind by this years-long ordeal. Was finally finding and killing the mastermind behind the most disastrous attack on U.S. soil in our country's history worth it? Could we call it a victory? It's impossible to forget the 2,100 lives lost in combat, the civilians living in a permanently war-torn, poverty-stricken region, the anger against our country that exists because of errors that cost lives and misjudged political moves, and the rest of the messy aftermath of 9/11. Chastain's moment as weeping Mary, while slightly maudlin, worked for me in the end. It was her character's moment of release at the end of a decade-long pursuit that cost lives of her colleagues. She was representative of us civilians, we the people, as we reflect on how this war has affected or not affected us. It was the catharsis. Maybe an awkward one, but without it the story would have no denouement, and to me, it felt right.


  1. Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-nominated follow-up to The Hurt Locker is a gripping, sharply written and subtly provocative thriller, anchored by a terrific central performance from Jessica Chastain.


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