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I’m going to smoke everyone involved in this op and then I’m going to kill bin Laden.

Movie

Zero Dark Thirty
(2012)

 

It’s interesting to note that Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boam were planning a film based on the unresolved hunt for Osama Bin Laden when the 2011 raid on the compound in Abbottabad took place. One can only conclude that, if they’d been denied the godsend of action-packed climax, the whole film would have been as boring as a dog’s arse. Serendipity, eh

The sudden switching of gears could explain the cobbled-together structure of the ZD30, but it leaves a larger question. Was there really a story to tell here? Leads apparently going nowhere. Great leaps of several years at a time, but with no real sense of this, such that a narrative sense can only be maintained by subtitles. And handy visual reminders of significant terrorist incidents over the 10 years since 9/11. In the hope that, somehow, these touchstones render a coherent narrative.

The filmmakers know this, which is why we have Jessica Chastain’s tour guide. Dogged and dedicated, she is determined to get her man when all around her fall away, die, or move on. Unfortunately, Maya is strictly one-note. Not in a way that might be attuned to the requirements of the story, had the procedural elements been strong enough for her to merely be their facilitator. But in a way that exposes the limitations of poor character writing. Boam attempts to flesh her out in laziest of ways; at lunch with a colleague (Jennifer Ehle; if nothing else, it’s nice to see her getting work) Maya announces, “I’m not that girl who fucks” and is given to similarly cartoonish pronouncements throughout (“I’m going to kill Bin Laden!”, “I’m the motherfucker who found this place!”) as if we’re supposed to thump the table in pride. She also understands that yelling threats at your boss is the way to get your way; as we all know from experience works incredibly well. So there’s a schizophrenic quality, as Bigelow seems to want to “sell” this as a serious, factual (journalistically rigorous) piece (which may be it’s biggest problem).

And there are plenty of issues with the presentation of this female protagonist that seem distracting to the story in hand. She doesn’t just happen to be female, she is self-consciously female. Maya’s reactions to the torture scenes at the start are presumably meant to mirror the audience’s, but we soon discover that she has toughened up just like her male colleagues. Is this a triumph for cross-gender manifestations of inhumanly? At the climax she brings forth tears (Of joy? Of relief? Of, “What was it all for?” – I wish I cared); none of that male stoicism there, she can get back to being female (the moment is also presented with picturesque artifice, sat alone in the back of a Boeing as the tailgate rises). She is the one who is 100% certain that Bin Laden is in the compound; presumably that’s at least 40% female intuition since the others (men) round the table can’t muster more than 60%.

Chastain does her best with the part, but it’s a terribly cheesy one. And Bigelow can’t resist overdoing it; Maya, on learning of the death of a friend and the loss of an important lead, resorts to Hollywood drunkenness. She is next seen sat on the floor, leaning woefully against a wall, an open bottle of Smirnov on her desk. She also manages to get blown up in a hotel (present at the scene of actual events!) and then has her car sprayed with bullets in an attempted assassination. Because that kind of thing ups the dramatic ante when you can feel your audience drifting off.

While I’m criticising her choices, Bigelow’s the one who makes this watchable. But let’s not forget that she spent quite some time in the Hollywood netherworld because she wasn’t the best at picking strong material. Her visual sense, and action aesthetic were, and are, unparalleled. Which makes it something of a shame that she’s redesigned herself as a filmmaker who tackles serious topical subject matter. She isn’t very good at it. She isn’t someone who can rein in that kinetic energy, the desire to excite, to exhibit (in the words of the poster for Point Break) “100% pure testosterone!”). When you happen upon a scene structured around its set-piece possibilities (the car bomb at the military base), with the consequent character hyperbole and failure of common sense required from parties concerned, it only goes confirms this (and I think ex-hubby James Cameron, who was attached to this at one point, would have reached all these decisions and worse) Katherine, wouldn’t you be happier, deep down, making Point Break 2 than a dubious (at best) propaganda film for the military?

As for the subject matter itself, I’m going to resist descending into the inescapable mire of discussing the truths or fictions of the official stories of 9/11 and hows and whens of Bin Laden’s death. I’m a certifiable conspiracy buff but generally I try to resist the urge to get too entrenched in a viewpoint on either side, be it alternative or “proven”.  It’s done nothing to make me less sceptical of the official record, but I can’t say that I was expecting it to (I would have avoided it all together if I demanded nothing less than a serious dissection of the last 10 years of US foreign policy) I will say that the film’s version of the takedown at times seems like a comedy of errors, which if nothing else lends a “so ridiculous it could be so” quality. And I did half wonder if carrying Bin Laden’s body back to Area 51 had a wink and nudge aspect to it. There’s an interesting piece here http://www.spyculture.com/review-zero-dark-thirty/ that highlights several different “official” versions of the assault.

It’s the torture debate that has ratcheted up the column inches of the mainstream media, though. I’ve read coherent cases made on both sides of the fence claiming that it is pro- or anti-torture. As it’s a “procedural” ZD30 fancies itself to be in some way objective; it is not making a clear judgement on the rights and wrongs, just stating the facts. That doesn’t really wash, though, as the film fudges its self-appointed impartiality consistently. The torture is front-ended so we have relief from all the nastiness by about a third of the way through. In structural terms, the film starts with torture as a means of reaching a goal and finishes with that objective achieved. Subconsciously, there’s a link. It would be foolish to suggest that it makes torture seem attractive, but it also informs you that the torturers aren’t depraved scum (one has a PhD!), the sort of undesirable types that would cause an Abu Ghraib public relations nightmare.

Jason Clarke makes the strongest impression of anyone as Dan the torturer, investing more nuance him with an inner life that the rest of the cast are unable to find. It does occur to me that maybe he achieves something the filmmakers don’t want (or, rather, aren’t interested in); his performance makes you think rather than asking you to swallow what you’re fed verbatim.

But as for the debate, the best I can do is that torture is shown to work indirectly; the waterboarding doesn’t do the trick in and of itself but the continued mistreatment and 90 hours of sleep deprivation disorientate a detainee enough to be misled into thinking he has already dished the dirt (to be honest, this didn’t seem the most likely of ploys, outside of ‘60s spy fiction). Later too, an older prisoner says he will tell them what he knows as he does not want to be tortured any more.

A general problem with the sporadic torture or informant-fuelled info dumps is that they lack clarity in connecting the dots between different pieces of information learned at different times. There’s a sense that they are disconnected and that the CIA comes across them randomly, almost by chance (surely not!) Whether that is the case or not, that lack of rigour affects the film generally; there is little sense of causality to it all (again, this isn’t such a surprise given the hasty change of tack from the filmmakers when events overtook them). It’s also interesting to learn that there was a team of only six or seven people hunting Bin Laden, something that will likely fuel those who claim he died in 2001…

The thorny issues surrounding the subject matter make it difficult to separate the politics, moral debates and authenticity from whether ZD30 succeeds as a piece of storytelling on any level. I’d like to be able to say “That’s all that’s important” but that would be a bit simplistic of me when the film is clearly courting discussion on these points. Boam has cited All the President’s Men and Blackhawk Down as displaying the kind of balance between art and truth he is after, but if he’s including the latter his standards aren’t very high. ZD30 lacks the rigour and narrative drive of All the President’s Men or Zodiac although likes to think it is mimicking the tone of those films.

Ultimately, I don’t think Zero Dark Thirty is even an “important” film, but it masquerades as one due to its subject matter. It is unlikely to stand the test of time because it fails to resonate and has nothing to say about its subject. And as a “document” of events it fails because it prizes invention and cliché over facts. Boam and Bigelow seem to want it both ways, but neither has the acumen to reach either target.

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