Review: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

I had anxiety all day about going to see Zero Dark Thirty. It was a combination of the fact that I knew that the subject matter would have me wide-eyed, heart thumping, on the edge of my seat the whole time and the worry that comes with just having drank an extra large cup of tea before learning the movie was over two and half hours long.

I made it through, thoroughly exhausted, but bladder intact. Though I have to admit to never seeing The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s style is predictably handheld and seems hell-bent on conveying truth. So much truth. All of the truth. Truth truth truth. There is such an obsessive concern for the truth (whatever that means) in Bigelow’s film, which is an interesting venture considering the medium she chose: narrative film. Herein lies my fundamental problem with Zero Dark Thirty: the preoccupation with achieving pure truth seems in some ways admirable, and yet, in the end, wholly unattainable, so I found myself wishing about Zero Dark Thirty that there was a little less truth and a little more story.

The controversy that has arisen around Zero Dark Thirty has to do with the depictions of torture. Some say it glorifies torture. Others lament the degree to which these “enhanced interrogation techniques” help, within the plot of the film, lead to the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. The issue again is the expectation of truth in film, which I believe, in this case, was perpetuated by the public and the filmmakers alike. Why should it even be a discussion that a fictionalized account of history fictionalized the details? I think Kathryn Bigelow’s outward “Mission: Truth” has a lot to do with people holding her to those expectations, but perhaps the biggest reason people have gotten so up in arms can be expressed in two short words: too soon. This isn’t a depiction of torture committed in ancient, more barbaric times, but in the last decade of our super developed, super first-y first world. And it was perpetrated by people we recognize, human beings we could actually know. I happen to think the subject of torture was handled responsibly in the film. The number of scenes of torture, however, if you add them up and divide by the amount they advance the plot, equal more than was necessary.

Zero Dark Thirty is comprised of a large number of very serious things that happen one right after the other, and each one is dramatic and important and makes you nervous. The film is successful that way. Perhaps most importantly, for Kathryn Bigelow, those serious important things also seem pretty true. The film, for a lengthy 2 hours and 37 minutes, manages to remain gripping throughout. But how far does “gripping” take you? It’s gripping in the way that the news is gripping: it’s dramatic and important and you are enthralled because you should be, because it’s real. But movies aren’t, and I will even say, shouldn’t necessarily try to be, real.

I couldn’t help but compare Zero Dark Thirty to another historical drama from this year, Argo. I know I know, different conflicts, different time periods, different aesthetics, perhaps, all-together different goal attempts, but the two are the same in that they are movies. They are movies about stories we all knew the end to before we entered the theater. And as movies that tried to create cohesive, stylized, and interesting takes on historical events, Argo was more successful. I didn’t feel the suspense in Zero Dark Thirty that I felt in Argo, until perhaps the scene of the actual raid on bin Laden’s compound. Argo has its cheesy elements, but it has intense explosive moments, and it has equally as dramatic quiet scenes. Argo has a tight structure and good dialogue and sympathetic, multi-dimensional characters. All of this is missing for me in Zero Dark Thirty.

Jessica Chastain does what great things she can with the character she’s given, Maya. Maya is one, and only one, word: relentless. Obsessed with finding bin Laden’s courier, who would then lead her to bin Laden, all of Maya’s energy, words, looks, and breaths, go toward that goal. Nothing stems her relentlessness, not even emotions. The effect of this lack of emotional presence is that she seems so hardworking, so obsessive and sleep-deprived that we are exhausted for her, but not with her. Maya is the clear focus of the film. She’s the closest we get to any character, and that isn’t very close at all. Again, this makes it seem like we are watching a news broadcast: there are seriously significant events being shown, and there are several people on screen talking about the issue, and though you know they must be terribly important, you don’t get to really know any of them before the camera pans back to the explosion.

Mark Boal’s script seems responsible for the lack of character focus. Maybe it was purposeful; maybe this hyper fact-based film didn’t want to waste time in making you care about the personal struggles and triumphs of the people on screen. Maybe the goal was to just relay what happened, with all the intensity it no doubt did. But along with the abdication of traditional character development, Boal’s script has too many moments of both over-the-top, melodrama that would fit more easily into an episode of “Law and Order” than an Oscar-worthy film (“Do your fucking job. Bring me people to kill,” and, “Once you’re on their list, you never get off. Next time, there may not be bullet-proof glass to save you”), and “I’m-saying-a-lot-of-words-really-quickly-in-a-self-aggrandizing-tone-that’s-also-an-attempt-at-pretentious-wit-and-unless-you’re-a-high-level-government-employee-you’re-only-going-to-get-the-gist-of-it” banter.

Zero Dark Thirty is an experimentation of sorts, with genre, with historical re-telling, with how much truth you can really express through narrative film, and because of this, it is a brave film. It was successfully intense and anxiety-causing and managed to craft a respectful and, I believe, responsible portrait of very recent, very close to the chest events in history that are clearly still sore to the touch. I would have enjoyed it more if it was less about achieving absolute truth and more being a great movie, one with sympathetic characters, great, cutting dialogue, and a controlled, fully realized, structured identity. Yet, though it seems counterintuitive to the traditional function of the medium, it could be that Zero Dark Thirty is the kind of film that isn’t meant to be enjoyed.

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11 years ago

Holy crap. A real review on TheBlemish. I honestly do not even know what to do with that, other than say it read really well. Have not seen it yet, but did see The Hurt Locker, and if the tone and approach are similar, this review nailed Bigelow’s style.

Larry Putzgerald
11 years ago
Reply to  PunkA

Yep, finally!