ZERO DARK THIRTY Review: Where the History Channel Meets Lifetime
Director Kathryn Bigelow does two very smart things in her latest directorial effort, Zero Dark Thirty.
She does the first smart thing in the first two minutes of the film. The screen is black, and the only audio that we hear is a collection of harrowing 911 calls made from the World Trade Center after the planes crashed into the towers on that fateful day in 2001. It’s brilliant in its simplicity. This is a film about recent history – the hunt for, and assassination of, Osama bin Laden – but in the fog of partisan politics and screaming pundits, and after more than a decade of unemployment rates and hockey moms and WMD and fiscal cliffs and school shootings, it might be easy to forget just why SEAL Team Six took on the mission it did: because of 9/11. Bigelow reminds us.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA agent who was recruited by the agency out of high school, but whose résumé has only one line-item: hunting for Osama bin Laden. We are introduced to her in 2003, at an undisclosed Middle East location, where she witnesses her first interrogation. Her colleague, Dan (Jason Clarke, who is very good here), is attempting to extract information from Ammar (Reda Kateb), a man with terrorist ties. Dan’s methods include a fair amount of torture, as he subjects Ammar to sleep depravation, starvation, extreme restraint and confinement, humiliation, and yes, water boarding.
Ammar eventually divulges the identity of Osama bin Laden’s personal courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti (Tushaar Mehra), a fact that is confirmed by other detainees. But when the CIA captures the recipient of many of those couriered messages, Abu Faraj al-Libbi (Yoav Levi), and subjects him to torture as well, al-Libbi patently denies knowing anyone with that name. Maya interprets the insistence of one that contradicts the opinion of everyone else as a sign that al-Kuwaiti not only exists, but is very important.
The torture scenes are incredibly unsettling. At the height of the torture debate, when every television news magazine was illustrating or reenacting torture methods, the imagery was troubling enough, but it always carried with it the asterisk of pretend. Now, with the context of “based on firsthand accounts of actual events” and created by a skilled Hollywood director, torture – at least in the mind’s eye of the uninitiated – has a new, very real, look.
This dovetails into the other smart thing Bigelow does, which isn’t so much what she does as it is what she DOESN’T do. Bigelow doesn’t politicize the film, and in particular doesn’t politicize the torture. While Zero Dark Thirty might be based on actual events, it isn’t a documentary, and because that qualifies it as a dramatization, it would have been easy to stage scenes or introduce dialogue that favors one political opinion over another. Bigelow does not commit this sin; she remains objective in her approach and never praises or bashes either party.
Hmm. Okay. The elephant in the room has been appropriately bound and gagged, so let’s deal with the controversy. There are those who think ZDT and its makers somehow condone or endorse torture. This is not only wrong, I suspect those that hold that opinion watched the film with a preconceived notion on the effectiveness/necessity/morality of torture, and would have held the same opinion if the detainees had been subjected to pillow fights with hot college coeds. And for the other detractors who argue that the film suggests that the torturing of prisoners played a key role in finding bin Laden, well, maybe it did. Bigelow told the story she was told based on accounts of people who were there, and she is opposed by people who claim otherwise. It’s a giant battle of “he said, she said” between Hollywood and Washington – the two biggest spin cities in the world. This means I’m left to decide not who is telling the truth and who isn’t, but who is closer to the truth than the other. And left with that, I tend to side with Bigelow, only because politicians need to be re-elected, so they will say anything they can to curry favor with the greater populace. Bigelow will work again. Regardless, the torture scenes carry great impact.
The hunt for bin Laden continues, with Maya spending the next five years doggedly pursuing al-Kuwaiti, and in the process, evolving from that green agent who struggled to watch torture to a seasoned, almost grizzled, veteran who now orders the torture. It’s an evolution that isn’t surprising, especially considering the weight of the task at hand, the hostile environment in which she operates (both politically and culturally), and the events through which she suffers, including the death-from-suicide-bomber of a close friend at Camp Chapman, as well as her own survival of the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott in 2008 and a direct attack on her by unknown gunmen.
When the al-Kuwaiti trail appears to go cold, Maya returns stateside, where she continues her work in a much more bureaucratic environment. But the al-Kuwaiti trail heats up again, and Maya is convinced that a compound where bin Laden has never been seen is actually secretly housing the evil Al Qaeda leader, and she must convince the bureaucrats that the compound should be taken. The rest, as they say, is history.
And what history Bigelow captures. The section of movie between the time SEAL Team Six takes off from its base to storm bin Laden’s compound, to the time it returns to the base after storming bin Laden’s compound, is as captivating a piece of filmmaking as I’ve ever seen. Bigelow combines an excellent use of silence and claustrophobia, as well as deft switching between regular vision and night vision, to put you in the moment. You are with the SEALs as the secure each tiny room and climb narrow stairs and turn blind corners, and as they evacuate each child and kill each terrorist, and it quickly reaches a point where you understand how quiet they have to be, so you instinctively want to be that quiet too. (The crowd in my screening went great stretches during this part without so much as a throat-clearing.) Bigelow is also shrewd to never really show bin Laden’s face. You get glimpses of parts of it here and there – especially the beard – but to actually show it would have been unnecessary and (forgive the word choice) overkill.
But despite its captivating open and riveting close, the middle of the film is a detriment to the overall work. First, it becomes very procedural. The need for procedure is understandable, given the work that Maya does, but when your film clocks-in at 157 minutes, long stretches of X’s and O’s can make it feel even longer. This isn’t to say that it becomes a Bergman film in the middle (the Camp Chapman and Marriott bombing scenes take care of that), but I found the pace bogged down by “action” that I might otherwise find on a typical TV crime show.
The greater concern for me, however, revolves around Maya’s character’s behavior during this stretch. While Chastain is good in the role, she becomes something of a made-for-TV-movie heroine, with dreadful dialogue like, “I’m going to smoke everyone involved in this op and then I’m going to kill Osama bin Laden”; and, after the initial discussion concerning the compound, when asked by the CIA Director (James Gandolfini) who she was, responds, “I’m the motherfucker who found this place. Sir.”
You go, girl.
Other examples abound, including a screaming rant directed towards Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), tough talk aimed at the SEALs, and repeated scenes of Maya defiantly writing on her boss’ glass wall, in red dry-erase marker, the number of days since the compound presentation and the inaction since. I understand the unfortunate inequality that is at work in her life. I get that she’s a woman in a man’s world and needs to make herself a presence. I just think the way Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal went about did a disservice to Maya. These were actions and words better suited for a Markie Post-like protagonist, not someone who spearheaded what the poster rightly calls The Greatest Manhunt in History.
Out of 5 stars …