Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Running time: 157 minutes
Kathryn Bigelow’s last film, The Hurt Locker (2008), is one of my favourite films. The ways in which Bigelow can capture the realism of a live military situation made for some action film making so compelling that it has rarely been matched. The use of tension over theatrics was the key, focusing on the reality that a lot of combat can be slow and quiet rather than huge and crazy ala. any of the Die Hard films. Don’t get me wrong, I love Die Hard as much as the next man (if not more so!) but a film like Die Hard will have me bopping in my seat with the thrill of the ride, whilst a film like The Hurt Locker will keep me sitting dead still in a constant state of fear and pumped full of adrenaline. Suffice to say, Zero Dark Thirty has been a much anticipated film for me. Can Bigelow do all that again? Is she a director I can say I love in the military genre for some consistent aesthetics, or was The Hurt Locker a rare fluke?
For the most part, she pulled it off!
Now Showing this week is Zero Dark Thirty, directed by the aforementioned Kathryn Bigelow. Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the events leading up to the death of arguably the most wanted man in history: Osama bin Laden. Beginning with a chilling, audio only, rendition of the September 11 attacks; the film follows the journey of CIA Agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she dedicates herself to finding bin Laden. Along the way there is torture, bureaucracy and a weighty feeling of hopelessness, all of which are eating away at Agent Maya, slowly changing her from an innocent young agent into a formidable investigator.
Zero Dark Thirty is one intense film. The film opening with the September 11 attacks as I mentioned earlier, along with a disclaimer that the film is based upon first hand accounts of actual events, firmly plants the idea in the audience’s heads that this isn’t a complete work of fiction. Yes, I am certain that the film isn’t a completely word-for-word representation of the events that occurred, but the disclaimer said to me that all the events in the film actually happened in some form. The people giving the “first hand accounts” would have said, for example, that they had a board meeting to discuss the bin Laden situation; this person was not happy about it, this person defended it, and then the writers would have written their own dialogue to show that. So one can take the main narrative points as fact, in my opinion, but as for the specifics of characters or dialogue, one must take that with a grain of salt.
Once again, Bigelow excels with her realistic portrayals of events. (Spoiler alert if you don’t keep up with the news) The climactic raid on bin Laden’s compound that leads to his death was some of the most amazing action scenes I have seen in a film (End spoiler alert for people who live under various rocks). The lack of music, the gritty night-vision perspectives, and the fact that finally (FINALLY!) silenced weapons are shown to not actually be silent, makes the raid so tense and realistic that Bigelow had me frozen in my chair with anticipation and fear, even though I knew the ultimate outcome! The entire film is one massive build up to this one event, and it is a finale to be reckoned with! The Best Picture nomination this film has received is deserved based upon this scene alone.
The other aspect of the film that is very realistically portrayed is that of the torture scenes. They are incredibly visceral and brutal, often making me flinch throughout the film. Zero Dark Thirty has taken a lot of criticism for supposedly advocating torture of “detainees”, with the CIA and US senators complaining and saying that they never actually tortured anybody in the pursuit of bin Laden. While I can’t comment with any accuracy as to the legitimacy of their complaints (though they would have to complain regardless of if they tortured people or not, for the sake of public image), the one thing I will argue is that I don’t think Zero Dark Thirty advocates torture at all. Yes the characters torture people, and yes they get information that is vital to their investigations as a result of said torture; but I would not say that the film is saying that this is a good thing. It never felt good or just when a person was tortured in the film, not once. I feel Zero Dark Thirty merely presents the torture, leaving it to us as viewers to decide how we feel about it. We feel like the interrogators: seeing the detainee at face value and judging whether or not they are withholding information or legitimately innocent, and whether the ends do justify the means. That is some of the power of Zero Dark Thirty, our own self reflection from the events presented to us.
The only real complaint I would have about the film is that of the narrative structure. The film takes place across nearly ten years, and as such scenes often begin with a location and a date written on the screen. Some of these time jumps are many years apart, and it becomes a double-edged sword for the film. The positive side is that for character arc purposes, it allows us to see the characters develop over a long period of time in a two and a half hour film. Chastain’s Agent Maya has the most impressive arc in the film, going from standing in the corner will a interrogator tortures a person to being the person who deals out the pain, and the ways in which this slowly destroys who she is. However, the time jumps also never really felt like a lot of time had passed narrative wise, it all felt very disjointed when a time jump of three to four years occurs and nothing new has come to light in the investigation and could simply have been a scene change. But then again, I suppose that is the point of the film: that the investigations were seemingly going no where for so long before bin Laden was killed (Whoops, sorry rock-people!).
Zero Dark Thirty is definitely worthy of your attention. It is a military film without the ” ‘Merrrriicaaaaa!” kind of attitude; it is an objective look at the effects of modern warfare on the people involved, both in the field and in the offices. It is also a thrilling dramatisation of the manhunt that will go down in the history books, and that’s enough to make it worth watching. Sure it isn’t perfect, but it’s damn good.
See you next time!