The sometimes serious, but generally frivolous, musings of a city girl now living in the woods.
Let me start this review with a few declarations. I think you should know what you are getting yourself into.
(1) I am not a conspiracy theorist. I believe Osama Bin Laden and his crew were responsible for the attacks on 9-11, and March 11th in Madrid, and many, many others. I will likely never fully understand this course of action, but I’m sure my dad will tell me it’s about money or power. That’s what he always thinks these things are about.
(2) I am deeply opposed to the sort of extra-judicial action that the US took to find, and kill, Osama Bin Laden. I appreciate the complexity of this issue for intelligence officers, politicians and governments around the world. Nonetheless, I prefer we take a Nuremburg-ish approach to crimes against humanity. I can’t help but think that we (a) piss off a lot of countries (including allies) when we go around them, and (b) manage to help Al Qaida recruit when we do this shit. (And yes, I know that if I want Al Qaida to answer to a higher court, there are hella things our own government has done that should likely also be handled in such a court.) What can I say? I have a Star Trek vision-of-the-future kind of optimism about the peoples of the planet being able to eventually get their shit together and cooperate.
(3) I am generally quite fond of the US Constitution’s First Amendment. You know, the one that grants us freedom of speech, assembly, religion, etc. I am aware of the way that our culture, and courts, have interpreted this over the years and that we are so individualistic a society that we almost always put the rights of the speaker above the impact of the message. We in the US have a way of grabbing the rights without necessarily grappling with the responsibilities that go with them. (NRA, I am talking to you, here.) But what can I say, I am American, and so this notion of freedom of speech, especially with respect to making art, is a big deal to me.
Ok. Are you still with me? That was a kinda heavy prologue to a movie review.
I want to say something kind of flip, like, “Now let’s have some fun. It’s a movie, goddammit.” But the thing is, the movie, is kinda heavy.
And, truly, I experience this movie as…
The Tale of Two Movies.
A Work Of Art
Without context, as a stand alone film, Zero Dark Thirty is actually incredible. Just a couple of weeks ago I went to see Les Miserables, another in this season’s string of two-hour-plus movies and was, as you may recall, ready for it to end about 45 minutes before it actually did. Zero Dark Thirty? Not so much. The pacing was absolutely riveting. Normally, I am ready for my free refill on popcorn, or to take a trip to the ladies after about an hour. But no. Not this time. The last scenes, in which the SEAL team does its grisly deed, were glued-to-the-screen, heart-pounding scenes, and, interestingly, the soundtrack was almost quiet. The fact that a scene in which I could hear every footfall, punctuated by blown doors and gunfire, held my attention so thoroughly is testament to an amazing group of filmmakers.
Another testament to that team? Jessica Chastain is absolutely astonishing. She manages to be in turn steely and smart; reclusive and vulnerable. And not unlike Claire Danes in Homeland, she is also a little crazy. She is driven, and I am not sure exactly why. That is not the point, though. This film is not a character study, but rather an account of the work done primarily by intelligence officers to locate Osama Bin Laden. So it doesn’t matter why the characters do what they do, but rather that they do it. Chastain’s Maya has tenaciously held onto a bit of information about a courier for Bin Laden for years, convinced that it is the piece of intel that will lead to Bin Laden, whom she calls UBL. And it turns out she is right, and while she occasionally loses her cool, and almost her faith in her instincts, she never gives up. Chastain portrays a woman who is driven and brilliant, and Bigelow makes sure we are rooting for her all the way.
Speaking of Bigelow, there is just so much she does right, here. The sound that I mentioned before was just perfect, even, and perhaps especially during the awful torture scenes. The sets and dialogue and editing are really excellent. I will say, though, that I, unlike a lot of reviewers, did not like the opening sound clip, in which against a black screen, we hear cell phone conversations and 911 calls from September 11th. Perhaps she was trying to link this national experience to Chastain’s character, or perhaps she was trying to draw us all into the background noise of the time period of the beginning of the film. Nonetheless, I found it a little manipulative, and felt it attempted to justify the act of killing UBL in rogue fashion by playing on our emotions. (And maybe that is what art is supposed to do?) It made me uncomfortable, though.
There was a wonderful thing that she did, that I would like to use to illustrate her deft hand as a director. When Maya first gets to Pakistan, she is the new girl, and really, one of very few women on the job. She immediately butts heads with the other woman in a similar position, and its sets up the age-old competitive women trope. But instead of letting it go the old woman-hating way, she changes the story. Throughout the nearly decade-long span of the story, they become closer, friends, even, and become supports to one another. It reminded me so much of so many workplaces in which socially awkward folks can rub you the wrong way, and then you realize how funny/valuable/interesting they really are. I just love that Bigelow took a little time to rethink an age-old stereotype about women.
She made so many of the characters complicated, even the SEALS, and made the chase for UBL gripping. If this were fiction–you know, James Bond or something with Jack Ryan–I would whole-heartedly, unreservedly recommend it. (Actually, it would be waaaay better than films from that genre. It is the best spy thriller I’ve seen.)
But it is not fiction. Not exactly.
In Its Context
This movie was made in context. It was made in the United States, by American filmmakers, from information gathered, in part, from the US military and CIA. It was made in the context of our, how shall I say this, poorly educated citizenry, who, as Stephen Colbert noted in his interview with Kathryn Bigelow, doesn’t read books or newspapers but does go to the movies. This movie is going to be how our national collective memory pictures the events surrounding the murder of UBL.
And in light of the context and culture in which I live, my viewing and thinking about the movie becomes fuzzy and, frankly, confused. As you may have heard, a controversy has erupted because the torture in the film appears to lead to the key piece of information needed to locate and then take out UBL. It so angered some Congresspeople that they wrote an open letter to the movie studio asking them to include a disclaimer to the beginning of the film that says the film is a dramatization, and not based on fact. They say this, because according to CIA documents, some classified, torture did not lead to the name of the courier. It was always in the record and just needed sorting out. They are concerned, and rightfully so, that by making the suggestion that torture led to his location, that torture might just be justified in some situations. And moreover, they worry that the American public will get behind torture as a scary, but necessary, tactic. They deplore the fact that it was done at all, and are concerned about the stain these “enhanced interrogation techniques” leave on our reputation and authority in the world. (You can find their letter here.)
Bigelow, and her screen writing partner, Mark Boal, have decried torture, but believe its inclusion in the film was necessary, both for accuracy’s sake and to not sanitize it. They contend that they actually show the horror of the practice that was sanctioned by the Bush Administration and that not showing it would have been grossly inadequate. Props to them for depicting its sheer monstrosity and for not whitewashing history. However. Despite what they are saying, at every turn, that bit of intelligence gleaned from gruesome torture is the key to finding UBL. Later in the movie, even, when they have hit a (seemingly) dead end, a bigshot CIA guy–who happens to be Muslim so that justifies his stance?–bemoans the fact that there is no more “detainee” program.
OK, so torture was included in the film because it was actually done. Fair enough. I get that. But it goes largely uncriticized in the film. I say largely, because Maya has misgivings, at first, but it seems that more than being against torture, she is squeamish. Also, the whole notion of the extra-judicial killing of UBL goes not just uncriticized, but actually is given as a foregone conclusion. As if it is the only, and obvious way, to deal with his crimes. And perhaps Bigelow played it that way because that was, in fact, the attitude of the CIA and Us government. So, like torture, it was included for accuracy’s sake. Fine.
This is the point at which I start to wonder about the whole message of the film, and the why of its making. Because despite how astonishing the performances are, and they are, and how meticulously the settings and scenes are created, this is still just a gigantic love letter to the CIA. And before you go asking if I hate America, or want Al-Qaida to take over the world, take a breath. It is just hard to believe, that anyone watching this film could see it as criticizing the decisions made to track down UBL. The overwhelming message is that, despite how yucky the depiction of torture might be, it is important to see these folks as heroes and to make sure their actions are not just justified, but reified.
I don’t know, but it is also a movie, a story created to get people’s butts in seats and to make the studios some dough. This film is not journalism, and it is not a documentary. But it will enter the public record, and it will alter the way we think, even slightly, about how the US came to kill Osama Bin Laden.
Bottom line: Watching this film makes me wonder about so many big questions for this sped-up, screen-infused age. What does it mean to enjoy the artistry and craft of a film that depicts things that are despicable to me? What do I make of my rooting for Maya, while still angry that it seems no one is concerned about the fact of the extra-judicial killing of UBL? It makes me wonder what a filmmaker’s responsibility is when she is granted the great power of freedom of speech. To what extent should a filmmaker consider her audience and historical/cultural context when making a film? And how can audiences take part in conversation about trying and complex topics, especially when films are routinely simplistic?
My dad, ever the sage, would say it’s all about money–he says it in this way that it almost sounds like “Mon-yeh” and rubs all the pads of his fingertips together in the age-old sign for big bucks. He would say that the studio wanted to get the film in theaters to make money, and that the more we talk about it, the richer they get. He’s probably right. But still. Art is powerful; how do we harness and unleash it?
Check out these great articles for more on the controversy:
“Zero Dark Thirty” is indefensible