Sunday, January 6, 2013

Love: Zero Dark Thirty

The biggest criticisms surrounding Zero Dark Thirty are essentially the only criticisms the film has met on its slow-timed release schedule thus far: it's apolitical and depicts the US government's questionable torture methods without offering comment on them.  For a film that's essentially a procedural thriller - one based on a blend of the facts and fictions much of the country has been fascinated by - that's a downside that I believe ultimately makes for a richer, more rewarding film going experience. The events surrounding 9/11, America's 'War on Terror', and the killing of Osama Bin Laden are already saturated in complicated, difficult to articulate politics; the type of politics that can easily become slanted in the retelling towards something overtly nationalistic, falsely heroic, or weighed down by the placing of blame and crushing, obsessive madness.  Director Kathryn Bigelow, too, has already walked this path with The Hurt Locker to deliver a film I found overrated, but which was a devastating individualized portrayal of the horrors of military service in the Iraq conflict. To an extent, Zero Dark Thirty is doing the same, and seeks to satisfy our curiosity with all the morally ambiguous accoutrements in tact.  Our "heroes" here are people doing their jobs with whatever resources they're given, a task that mostly consists of reaching out in the darkness to pick at threads in the hopes that something will unravel.
Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have chosen to give the film a documentary sensibility, and while our story centers around top secret CIA missions, military maneuvers, and explosions of all kinds it's an even, level-headed drama that seems to resist the adrenaline pumping cuts and edits of the action genre at all costs.  At the center of Zero Dark Thirty we find a deeply frustrated CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain), a woman only just sent to Pakistan to interrogate, investigate, and prevent future acts of terrorism.  Don't make the mistake of wanting Maya to fulfill your between season desires for Claire Danes' manic Carrie.  Zero Dark Thirty is not Homeland.  It's not character-driven. There are no emotional, over-the-top histrionics, ill advised love stories, or elements of psychosis. This is not a reactive role or one where action heroine bad-assery or raging levels of emotion would be at all appropriate.  Maya is rigid, but it's the type of rigidity that comes from discipline. This is a woman who is forever on the job. She performs her duties like a consummate professional, is devoted to them, and never allows anything that could undermine her position to have any place in her investigation because guess what?  In reality? That Homeland shit doesn't belong in the war room. Bigelow is doing something interesting with Maya, she's a protagonist who never actually feels like a main character.  We follow her, but this is a distant, third-person objective mode of storytelling.  Maya leads us places, but she never tells us how to think about them and the film doesn't want to pull us definitively to her side.    
Maya is extremely disciplined, so Chastain must play her as such. She's not an intimidating presence, but she's a formidable blood hound who we can witness silently seething as bureaucracy keeps doing everything it can to limit her ability to do her job. It's her responsibility to be present in a torture act, but not to argue about its effectiveness.  It's her responsibility to sacrifice her social life and to not flinch if she loses a friend.  She's quiet, reserved, and working within and against a male-dominated system to do things her way instead of resorting to their methods. As mentioned, Zero Dark Thirty is a procedural. It's a movie built on the tasks and processes, on paperwork and go-aheads from people counting on re-election.  Maya is the woman behind the action, the heroine who compiles the data that sends the Seal team to perform the act that will make them national heroes while she remains a ghost.  This is a less is more situation, and one which blends perfectly with the film's complicated, slowly building narrative.  When we need to break away from following Maya, we are able to do so without incident because it's not explicitly her story, and so the change of hands is as effortless as it would in an operational circumstance: given to the next person or team down the line.  It's not a perfect mechanism or perfect film, but it's fascinating, tempered, and practical in its presentation.    
I was surprised by how much I appreciated Zero Dark Thirty, and how quickly the extended run-time seemed to pass. Bigelow and Chastain are using a quiet force to pull a coup on a genre with a long history of "doing things a certain way," and they managed it deftly enough to receive a hearty round of applause from the packed theater I saw the film in.  If I had to guess, I'd say Bigelow is using Maya's character as a proxy. They are women working in fields dominated by men, and women who have had to change the way the game is played to get their message across. A different director would have made this a movie about the military guns themselves, and while the raid on Bin Laden's compound closes the film and is executed to maximum effect, it's worth noting that it comes after a solid two hours of carefully controlled process that artfully extinguishes any notion one may have of it as a bustling, guns-out mission picture built around an action set-piece. The movie isn't leading to the raid, that's not its sole function. It's about that road and the people on it.  By the end, there's a melancholy to the raid, an uncertainty from all sides that makes it frightening though we know the outcome, and the calm that follows isn't celebratory, it's a ruptured version of more of the same.  The cycle repeats.


  1. I really dug this review, thoughtful and insightful on a film I'm still sorting out, too.

  2. I'm glad to finally read a review that isn't ultimately disappointed in this film. I've definitely lowered my expectations after the immediate hype of the film started to fall, but your review has me pumped again! Looking forward to this one.

  3. This is a fascinating film, and Chastain's wonderful performance has something in it of the tragic sense of life.

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