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what i watched last week

zero dark thirty (kathryn bigelow, 2012)

It bothers me that I have to spend time talking about external matters before I get to actually discussing the movie, but given the advance responses, I better get it out of the way.

There seem to be two major complaints about the film. I find one particularly annoying, since it addresses some of the film’s content, and the complaints have come largely from people who haven’t even seen the movie. Yes, there are scenes of torture in the first part of the film. The criticism claims that the film is a lie, because there is no evidence that torture led to useful intelligence, whereas Zero Dark Thirty argues that Osama bin Laden was found thanks to torture-induced information. Well, I admit I often get confused by plots in international action thrillers, so maybe I missed something, but I’ve actually seen the movie now, and for the life of me, I don’t get this argument. Prisoners are tortured, some give out muddled information, many years later the CIA is no closer to finding bin Laden than they were in 2001. If there is a positive correlation in Zero Dark Thirty between information obtained via torture and bin Laden’s capture, it is obscure at best. As Zero Dark Thirty tells the story, he is captured thanks to the obsessive work of one CIA agent (played by Jessica Chastain). If you want an example of a work of art claiming that torture is effective, watch any episode of 24. Zero Dark Thirty is not 24.

The other complaint is that the filmmakers got privileged access to classified information. If true, this is a bad thing, and I’m glad it is being pursued, although nothing has come of this yet. But if the CIA hoped to exchange secret information for a positive representation in the film, they’ll probably want their money back. This isn’t like Top Gun, which worked as an advertisement for the Navy. The CIA in Zero Dark Thirty is an organization that regularly misses important information. It takes them a decade to find bin Laden, and if the movie is to be trusted, a lot of that time was spent doing nothing. (Well, not nothing, but bin Laden was not a priority, and a lot of money was nonetheless wasted on him). The persistence of Chastain’s agent is the primary, even the only, reason Zero Dark Thirty gives us for how bin Laden was finally found and killed. So sure, if the government is treating the filmmakers to information hidden from the rest of us, that’s wrong, but there is nothing in the film itself that claims our government is good, or flawless, or morally correct.

In fact, given the matter-of-fact way torture is presented, the U.S. comes across as heartless. I’d say efficient, but as I argue above, torture is not efficient in the movie. What we do get from Zero Dark Thirty are unsettling examples of what our country did and does in our name and in the name of homeland security. It’s not a pretty sight.

I do think Bigelow and writer Mark Boal walk a thin line in other areas, though. They claim that their film is apolitical, that it just tells us what happened. But it’s a one-sided representation of history. We are constantly reminded of why we want revenge, but there is no attempt to see things from the other side, no suggestion that they might have a reason to fight us. The enemy in Zero Dark Thirty has no ideology beyond wanting to kill Americans. This makes the U.S. the de facto “good” side, no matter how many bad things we do: they attack us mindlessly, we seek revenge. Bigelow can pretend this is unbiased, and the film techniques used in the movie resemble a documentary at times, but even when the film draws shades of grey, we never forget who the bad guys are.

The decision to center the story around Chastain’s CIA agent works very well artistically. Chastain is certainly up to the demands of carrying the movie on her shoulders. When the attack on bin Laden finally occurs, we’ve been prepared to root for the U.S. soldiers, not because they are on our side, or because they are going to vanquish evil, but because they are going to finally resolve Chastain’s endless quest to revenge personal losses. It is extremely effective, and the final half-hour is tense, even as we know how it ends, because we have grown to sympathize with Chastain, and we want her to get what she’s wanted since the beginning of the movie.

This is an interesting trick, and perhaps speaks to why Bigelow wants us to believe the film is apolitical. It turns out Zero Dark Thirty isn’t about the American search for bin Laden; instead, it’s about one woman’s inexorable struggle to be right.

Zero Dark Thirty reminded me at times of Kurosawa’s High and Low, a police procedural that spent 2 1/2 hours watching police following one lead after another, the vast majority of which were dead ends. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t quite as good as High and Low, but it does have a lot of dead ends, and the frustration we feel, combined with Jessica Chastain’s great performance, makes the movie engrossing for its entire running time. 8/10.

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