Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty
Pros:Tense, gripping, well-produced
Cons:Some pacing issues, some disconnected sections
Jessica Chastain plays a CIA agent on a mission to find Osama Bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial latest offering.
Kathryn Bigelow has a problem: she may very well be remembered as Hollywood’s representative of the War on Terror. Her last film, The Hurt Locker, was a beautifully-shot and intensely personal view of a U.S. Army bomb disposal unit in Iraq, and it was a good film which was inexplicably garlanded with multiple Oscars. Prior to that, she was best-known for directing Point Break and being temporarily married to Big Jim Cameron, so this is, perhaps, the difficult third album, and she has certainly been anything but restrained. The controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty – her latest work about the CIA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden - has been bubbling since before its release, with everyone from John McCain to Brett Easton Ellis weighing in on the film’s treatment of torture. This is great. It is important that a society discusses where our moral and social boundaries lie, and it is sad that the task of stoking these fires of debate often falls to artists. The problem is that sometimes, in the whirlwind of public debate, the actual piece itself remains unexamined.
First of all, this is not a documentary. Any film which uses the words ‘based on’ is a work of fiction, and this film uses them before a single image is shown. Zero Dark Thirty is, however, two and a half hours of unrelenting tension. As a product, it is wonderfully manufactured: well-edited, carefully shot, and understatedly acted with as little intrusion on the narrative as possible. You know how this story ends but, unlike say, Big Jim Cameron’s Titanic, the dramatic tension is not replaced by a fluffy love story or contrived personal narrative. In fact the characters are notable mainly for their lack of background and development. The lead character Maya, ably played by an ever-improving Jessica Chastain (The Help, Tree of Life), only grows in fits and starts, her truncated character arcs neatly bookended by terrorist attacks, new leads and dead ends as she hunts for Bin Laden. The sheer pace at which the narrative moves, and the revolving cast of characters needed to represent the internal machinations of an intelligence agency, leaves little time for anything deeper, and at times following the various spooks and administrators can feel like a game of Guess Who for mid-ranking actors (see cameos from Mark Duplass, Harold Perrineau, Stephen Dillane, James Gandolfini and, err, John Barrowman) which only accentuates the importance of narrative over character.
A problem arises towards the end of the film however, where the story we have been following – namely the hunt for Bin Laden – is consumed by an overlong, shot-by-shot recreation of Seal Team Six’s raid on the Bin Laden compound. While this definitely has appeal for military enthusiasts (of which I’m one) the sense of waiting for them to just get to Bin Laden, and the complete disconnect from the character we have been following for the entire film, Maya, is disappointing. It suddenly begins to feel like a different film from the one you’ve been gripped by; you’re still gripped, but by anticipation rather than suspense. It’s not really clear what this long section adds to the film, and Bigelow could probably have directed this re-enactment as a separate piece and been happy enough with the result of both.
Then, finally, we get to the controversial torture scenes. Firstly, these are loaded heavily to the front of the film, and don’t particularly dominate the story. The debate, which I won’t get overly embroiled in here, is about whether the movie endorses torture, or even glorifies it. I actually think that the movie presents people who endorse it, and tries to show that as clearly as possible, but I’m not certain that the film itself endorses it. As I said, we barely get to know most of the characters in the film, and so sympathy for them hardly develops, even with the few small humanising moments afforded to torturer-in-chief Dan (Jason Clarke), thus creating a feeling of ambivalence towards the characters themselves. I can’t go into this much further without giving away some key plot points, but suffice it to say that I don’t think that the film necessarily endorses torture, and I definitely wouldn’t consider Bigelow as a supporter of it, nor would I compare her to Leni Riefenstahl. If you wish to know more about the debate, I will simply direct you here.
Overall the film rates about the same as The Hurt Locker. It is a very good, well-produced film which will keep you gripped the whole way through, but it’s no masterpiece, it probably shouldn’t be a Best Picture contender and it has some flaws which, while not ruining the film, you just feel could have been made better. You’ll probably want to go see it regardless, as the brouhaha surrounding it will almost certainly come up again and again until Oscar night and you mightn’t want to feel ill-informed at dinner parties. Bigelow has not created a moral inquisition for modern America, merely a pretty good spy thriller.