Tuesday, February 05, 2013

FILM REVIEW: Zero Dark Thirty

This movie has been controversial ever since it was announced that the Oscar-winning creative team behind The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal was going to follow up their film that won the 2009 Best Picture Academy Award with a movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

That movie is Zero Dark Thirty, and it has only become more controversial, not less, since it moved from being words on a page to images on the screen. The primary controversy (although there are many!) is based on the characterization of the film as  "journalistic" combined with the inclusion of scenes of torture during "enhanced" interrogations which occur during the hunt to find bin Laden's location.

To me, the question of whether the film is trying to say that information garnered from torture led to the capture of bin Laden is a Rohrshach test. Different people viewing the film come to different conclusions about that that aspect of the film. The filmmakers itself attempted to dispute the characterization of the film's message as pro-torture saying that they personally were against "inhumane treatment of any kind" but that torture was as aspect of the story that the film could not ignore.

It's the second question, of the film depicting itself as a sort of docu-drama or stylized portrayal of the actual incidents that occurred during the decade-long fight to find bin Laden that I think is even more problematic for Zero Dark Thirty. The film does things like put titles on the screen like "Black CIA Site" when it is depicting locations and as it goes on, it depicts some of the large successful terrorist attacks that have happened since 9-11 in other countries, with the specific dates on the screen (like the July 7, 2005 London bombings, for example). This is all intended to give the film a sense of verisimilitude, but in the end it is a movie, despite the creator's attempt to describe it as 'journalistic" (i.e. depicting the truth). We, the audience, do know (from other sources) that many of the events depicted in the film actually happened, but we do not know whether all the events in the film actually happened. Boal has written (and been nominated for) an  Original Screenplay, which means Zero Dark Thirty is a work of fiction. But the intense negative reaction to the movie from some quarters (including statements from the acting head of the CIA itself and the current Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee) seem to forget that fact.

There's no question that these controversies had an impact on the reception for the film at the Oscars (but, tellingly, not the box-office). Zero Dark Thirty received only 5 Oscar nominations, with a clear rebuke to Bigelow by not including her on the list of Best Directors (even though she is one of the very few women to ever have been nominated and the only woman to have ever won) although the Academy still recognized the searing performance by Jessica Chastain at the heart of the film with a Best Actress nomination. The Hurt Locker was the lowest-grossing film ever to win Best Picture; Zero Dark Thirty has already grossed 4 times that amount and the Oscar ceremony hasn't even happened yet.

Chastain is a revelation in Zero Dark Thirty. She had previously received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role in The Help as a helpless Southern Belle and also was noticeable in Tree of Life as the troubled wife and mother. However, in Zero Dark Thirty Chastain plays Maya, a CIA operative who was recruited into The Company out of high school(!) and has had one single job for her entire career: hunt down bin Laden. Chastain plays Maya as a very driven, forceful and somewhat obsessive person who is willing to do whatever it takes to sift through the vast haystacks of intelligence the CIA has on various terrorists in order to find the few golden nuggets of truth which can indicate where bin Laden is hiding.

We (the audience) see this from the very first scene in the movie where we see Chastain appear in a very business-like women's suit to attend an interrogation being conducted by her superior played by Jason Clarke. The interview quickly turns into a torture session as the bedraggled, visibly wounded prisoner is stripped naked, waterboarded and assaulted (verbally, physically and emotionally). The fact that Chastain does not blanch or complain or protest and even participates in a small way (i.e. by bringing the water bucket they use to pour over the prisoner's face to make him think he's drowning) immediately tells us: "This girl is a bad-ass!"

Bigelow must have been amazed to discover (just as we the audience is) that the key person at the center of the "the Greatest Manhunt in History" was a strong-willed woman. It makes for a great story as we watch Maya battle in a male-dominated environment to keep the focus on bin Laden when her superiors want to assign her to other activities when politics and priorities at the agency change. Interestingly, despite spending most of the time in various Muslim countries like Pakistan the film shows that Maya has several other female colleagues on staff, but that it's really her personality and disposition which make her a lone wolf and singularly focussed on the hunt for bin Laden.

Overall, the film is very well-directed and confidently constructed. Despite telling a story that the every audience member knows the ending to it is very compelling and suspenseful and never waivers in its grip on the viewer. The depictions of torture are very difficult to watch (as they should be) and your reaction to that may overwhelm you overall evaluation of the film. It also contains one of the best performances (in one of the best roles) by a woman on film in 2012. My personal reaction to the film is that I was not as emotionally invested or impacted by it as I expected to be. Every American was (and is) impacted by the death of Osama bin Laden, of course, so one would think that a film depicting the successful hunt to find and kill him would be cathartic However, just like Maya, by the end of the film I did not feel bliss or relief at (re)living the experience but somewhat drained and tired. That may have been Bigelow's intent, and if so, she succeeded masterfully. But the exhaustion I felt at the end of the movie was not one that I relate to having expended energy in the pursuit of some useful goal or pleasurable activity but more like the conclusion of a weighty task. Is that really how one wants to feel after watching a movie?

Title: Zero Dark Thirty.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow.
Running Time: 2 hours, 37 minutes.
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.
Release Date: December 19, 2012.
Viewing Date: January 5, 2013.

Writing: A-.
Acting: A+.
Visuals: A.
Impact: A-.

Overall Grade: A/A- (3.917/4.0).

1 comment:

Dosti said...

A very well directed and acted movie! Its like watching events of last decade from America's perspective (though it may be faulty at times). At a shorter length (20-25 minutes), this movie could have been an outstanding one. However, with good performances and good dialogues, it is still a very good movie to watch.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin