“She’s smart,” a CIA operative says of Jessica Chastain’s loner sleuth, Maya, in Zero Dark Thirty. “Everybody’s smart,” counters his CIA director. However: Precisely what sort of intelligence is required to apprehend the world’s most sought after, elusive terrorist?
Mark Boal’s script, concerning the decade long man-hunt for Osama bin Laden, charts the byzantine trajectory of that intelligence. Boal’s narrative shares what was involved in capturing such a terrorist of notoriety: using waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation to gather information from prisoners of black site detainment camps, then using said information to team with ISI in capturing key Saudi terrorists, more “enhanced interrogation”, bribing a Kuwaiti powerbroker with a Lamborghini in exchange for the landline phone number of a terrorist’s mother, and various other fragments which incrementally render the creature of myth a tangible target in Abbottabad.
Part of the joy in participating as a viewer of Zero Dark Thirty is playing detective i.e., following a pluralistic, uncertain and multifaceted chain of reasoning wherever it might lead. Sometimes these corridors lead to false starts, deceptions and to the horrors of human torture. The big payoff, of course, is that the decade long investigation leads to the raid of Bin Laden on May 2, 2011. To put it simply, Zero Dark Thirty is a fascinating thriller; its recent parade of topping critics’ lists is entirely justified.
Two days after attending a sold out 7:00 show of the film, I turn to the stranger next to me on the BART and ask, “Did you see Zero Dark Thirty?”
“No,” he replies. “That’s the one directed by the woman who did The Hurt Locker…”
“Kathryn Bigelow,” I assist.
“Yeah. Kathryn Bigelow. I didn’t like The Hurt Locker.”
“Well, her new film isn’t The Hurt Locker. You should see Zero Dark Thirty.”
We approach the Glen Park stop.
“This is my stop.” He gets up. “Maybe I’ll download it.”
Maybe he’ll download it. Surely he’ll miss out.
I was practically holding my breath during the final twenty minutes of Zero Dark Thirty. The woman next to me was hiding behind her boyfriend. My own boyfriend could not stop biting his nails. Seriously. “Stop biting your nails,” I told him. I mean, it’s only a movie(?)
Anyway. Not addressing the torture scenes of Zero Dark Thirty in a film review is similar to not addressing the rape scene in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible.
And considering that the rape scene in Irréversible is basically the pinnacle of disturbing scenes in cinema, if you’ve watched Irréversible in all its tragedy, the controversy surrounding the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty mainly centers around the implications of the torture in the narrative rather than the mere cinematic depiction of torture.
The alleged implications of the use of torture in Zero Dark Thirty are that the film is “pro-torture” and/or that the film argues that the torturing of detainees led to the capture of Osama bin Laden. Hence Senator John McCain’s recent stint as a film critic.
Zero Dark Thirty as pro-torture and Zero Dark Thirty maintaining that torture yielded key information leading to Bin Laden’s capture are two different points to decide on when watching the film. Citing a film as “pro-torture” because of the mere cinematic depiction of torture is obviously flawed. However, Bigelow and Boal could be doing a better job with responding to critics. The question is: Are the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty presenting the idea that torturing detainees led to the raid in Abbottabad, and if this is the line of reasoning in what is obviously a movie and not a documentary and considering the film begins with text that reads, “this motion picture is based on firsthand accounts of actual events”, then do the filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty stand by the position that torture led to the capturing of Bin Laden irl? Bigelow’s response (as told to Politico during the D.C. film premiere): “It’s a movie and not a documentary. It’s just a movie. It’s a dramatization.”
The dramatization for mere cinema’s sake and the dramatization of actual investigative reporting is a tension in Zero Dark Thirty. And the controversy over Mark Boal’s sources used throughout his own investigative reporting may lead to the filmmakers’ ambiguous responses.
Fair enough. But Zero Dark Thirty is not ambiguous in its tale of hunting down Osama bin Laden. Watch the film, follow the investigation that led to Abbottabad: the case relies on information gained from detainees who were tortured.
Nevertheless, despite the CIA jargon and the tediousness of CIA clearances, global politics, and office play, and despite being a film in which the audience knows the ending to the movie, Bigelow directs Zero Dark Thirty with a clear, anticipatory narrative. She is adept at building high tension action sequences and delivering such scenes with efficacy. She also maneuvers the argumentative dialogue of the characters with confidence and clarity. Boal’s script has some of the most memorable lines in 2012 cinema. Chastain is capable as the lone wolf, Maya, but the character is more a victory for Boal’s screenwriting than it is Chastain’s acting. For although some scenes called for fury and certain four letter words, Chastain’s delivery during these specific scenes rang more desperate than confident protagonist, i.e. badass, which the dialogue called for.
Bigelow and Boal previously collaborated on The Hurt Locker, a film about a bomb disposal unit during the Iraq War. The film won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, among others during the 82nd Academy Awards in 2010.
This year their second collaboration is up for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, among others. No Best Director nod for Bigelow this round. The nominated directors – Michael Haneke, Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, David O. Russell and Benh Zeitlin – feature either technical achievements in filmmaking or the ability to expertly handle more complex, delicate material for feature films or perhaps both. Bigelow, however, arguably tackled the highest stakes in film this year. Her omission from the Best Director nominations is at best, suggestive of expanding the number of nominees in the category, and at worst, simply embarrassing.
Chani envisions a Hollywood where Daniel Day-Lewis or Michael Fassbender star as Ludwig Wittgenstein in a film based on Ray Monk’s biography, The Duty of Genius. Paul Thomas Anderson directs. Her Hollywood also casts Ezra Miller in Søren Kierkegaard’s Diary of a Seducer. Anne Hathaway stars in Gaspar Noé’s next production. HBO debuts a travel show starring Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell and Tommy Wiseau as Tommy Wiseau. And Michael Haneke directs a sequel to The Seventh Continent. In 3D.
Her deepest thoughts are found at symposiumsays.com and you can follow her on twitter @RigidDesignator