Saturday, June 1, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

ZERO DARK THIRTY is best described as a nearly perfect technical exercise. A very carefully woven and executed motion picture that provides most of its fascination in its cold precision. Also in its no frills narrative, its somber characterizations, its hardware. You could easily ignore the political implications of the movie and simply focus on the advanced weaponry and highly skilled operatives who both mastermind and carry out the film's mission: the hunting and killing of Osama bin Laden. Think of it as the most slickly produced documentary of its time, one where camera operators had privileged vantage points. Albeit very orchestrated and with some poetic license here and there.

Downsides? If I wanted yet another stone faced procedural I could've turned to the networks or basic cable. There is nothing wrong with any of the CSI programs, for example, as they can be satisfying entertainments. But I expected a hell of a lot more from director Kathryn Bigelow, especially after her strong and sobering military drama THE HURT LOCKER a few years before. That film was set in the hellish ruins of war torn Iraq and in the no less frustrating domecile of a soldier's home back in the States. The film examined its multidimensional principals with great insight. ZERO DARK THIRTY alternatively features a protagonist named Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer who mostly reminded me of the Replicants we saw in BLADE RUNNER.

Maybe that's inaccurate and unfair. Maybe there was buried within this movie a woman empowerment saga of greater depth than I could discern. Maya is seen getting angry several times as she chokes on the "proper channels" and watches as superiors hesitate and waver on moving forward with leads she knows will supply the target (with "100% certainty"). We also find her in tears when the mission is done, in a moment I know was supposed to be hugely cathartic and effective but left me as cold as did the rest of the film. But her character, realistic (or real) or not, and for all her quiet tenacity, is finally just not that interesting. I did wonder if her tears were born of cognitive dissonance, or something like buyer's remorse after bin Laden's capture. Maybe this film could've run longer and expanded on that?

The events detailing the trail to and capture of bin Laden should be well known to most viewers. The final half hour presents the siege and capture as matter of factly as the rest of the film's events. This may well be the right approach; we didn't need another wish fulfillment, jingoistic action vehicle. Aside from a moment when a soldier stops to pause and assess the gravity of the scenario, the movie tries to maintain an objective account. It is what it is.

When it was announced that this film was to be made, I wondered of its necessity, as I do of most films that attempt to recreate a real life life event. To be worth my time, a film needs to tell those familiar events with an insight I could not have discerned from CNN or Time. Compelling like a UNITED 93.  A unique point of view, a privileged consideration to go with those choice shots. ZERO DARK THIRTY too often plays like a TV drama, and rarely works above that level.

Then there's the business of the scenes of torture, which occur early in the film.  Many protested the film as they felt it glorified these acts, which many will defend as necessary.  ZERO DARK THIRTY, to me, does not make the argument for or against torture. It just shows it. An event (step?) that occurred in the timeline. What these characters did, believing that extracting information this way would lead to capture.  Would the compound have been pinpointed without this information?Your answer may depend solely on your political affiliation. But as edited in its current form (there are rumors of more brutal scenes excised), the movie can't allow me to accuse Bigelow of sensationalizing in any manner or pushing a pro-Dick Cheney-like agenda. To dismiss (or refuse to see) this film over these scenes alone is misguided.

But maybe that highlights the problem: I almost wish the film had been more partisan, with more fire in its gut. It's just too mechanical. Aside from a lingered upon explosion, there seems to be no effort to create a work of art here. And to take everything at face value would be a mistake, as it would with any Hollywood pic.  Therefore, it's true, ZERO DARK THIRTY is just unnecessary.

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