Zero Dark Thirty

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday December 19, 2012

A still from "Zero Dark Thirty"
A still from "Zero Dark Thirty"  

You can expect to hear a lot about the "docu-drama" aspects of Kathryn Bigelow's film about the ten-year hunt for Osama Bin Laden, the evocatively titled "Zero Dark Thirty." Written by former journalist Mark Boal, as was her previous film "The Hurt Locker," "ZD30" is simultaneously epic and sparing - a quiet procedural that encompasses a decade of covert government action, and all the moral quandaries they entailed. Its makers are calling it "journalistic cinema," and while that may be a bit self-congratulatory, there's no doubt this is a dense, intellectual work of filmmaking.

Arguments will be had over the veracity of the events depicted, commendations will be given for the seemingly-confidential information rendered public, comparisons to "All the President's Men" will no doubt be made. In fact, Boal and Bigelow have already been the center of a lawsuit claiming government officials gave them improper access to classified materials. But that story, the story-behind-the-movie, is the least interesting aspect of "ZD30."

It's also not the only controversy at play. It's too pervasive to ignore at this point: even now, in the days before the film's quite limited first release, articles are popping up in major publications accusing Bigelow's picture of being "pro-torture," and unacceptably conservative in its disposition (ironic, considering the original cries of worry from the right, which prompted the aforementioned lawsuits.) "ZD30" isn't about the information it presents - that being how a long series of bribes, dead ends, surveillance coups, and yes, "advanced interrogation techniques" led to Bin Ladin's courier and then to his safehouse - so much as it is about the way it presents it.

Bigelow's treatment of the topic (much to the chagrin of political commentators in need of editorial topics everywhere,) is without a political agenda. Our first sight is that of a hanging detainee, foregrounded in front of a crew of men in masks, as well as in front of Maya (Jessica Chastain). She's the field officer who, as presented by Boal's screenplay and Bigelow's film, single-handedly drove the hunt for Bin Ladin through every dead lead, every cold trail, and every disapproving senior officer until she arrived at a dead body.

We first lay eyes on her while this detainee is dehumanized, locked into a box, rattled by deafening heavy metal music, and indeed, water boarded. She looks shaken. But it's not politics or morality on her mind as much as it is viscera. She knows she has to get used to this, and we quickly watch as she does. By the next interrogation, when queried if she'd like to wear a mask to help her feel more comfortable in front of the tortured captor, she calmly responds, "Will he ever get out [of our prison]?" The answer is no, and likewise, coldly, so is hers.

Bigelow shoots that chilliness not as a political statement, but as a fact-of-life; and that's the same sheen she applies to everything from CIA boardroom meetings (James Gandolfini, in his third outstanding supporting performance of the year, fills Leon Panetta's apparently droll shoes), to the Abbatobad raid that resulted in the death of Bin Laden and a number of others (it's shot with handheld lenses and often through muddled night vision; with nary a moment of grandeur.) Much like "The Hurt Locker," this is a film about single-mindedness and obsession. But this is more of a pared-down procedural than a hero's journey. Vestiges of the crassness that littered throughout Bigelow's earlier work (like "Point Break" and "K19 The Widowmaker") remained in "Locker;" but have receded to reveal a far more mature filmmaker at work here.

Chastain will earn unending commendations for her detached turn as Maya, no doubt. But to my eyes, much of the credit belongs to Bigelow, who seems to have directed her by uttering "Okay, great job, but next time, do less," after every take. Maya - who, as an attractive woman excelling in a decidedly masculine world, will undoubtedly be accepted as a stand-in for Bigelow - is less of a feminist-against-the-world than a Bressonian blank slate.

Her backstory is unexplained, her interior thoughts are left untouched, and the idea of a love interest is actually treated as a joke. "I'm not that woman who fucks," Chastain deadpans to a colleague (played with naturalistic vivacity by the undervalued Jennifer Ehle), after a potential hookup is suggested. "It's unbecoming."

In fact, the few sequences where Bigelow does allow her to lash out in histrionics are the film's least convincing. Chastain's performance is very much up for interpretation, but it's not to allow easy audience identification. Rather, Maya is a moral quandary: some will see her as a great patriot, others as an inhuman monster who stooped to the same murderous lows of the man she spent a decade hunting.

And that's the brilliance of "Zero Dark Thirty." It's a political Rorschach test, an experiment in the malleability of audience response. I can't say that everything presented here is true, but that hardly matters. In one sense of the phrase or another, "Zero Dark Thirty" has been pared down to 150 minutes of "just the facts." The entire picture bounds forward, from lead-to-lead, from black sites to Washington, with a zen-like focus on its inevitable conclusion. Things like morality and political agendas aren't so much pushed to the side as they are completely ignored; relegated to the audiences' discretion.

That's Kathryn Bigelow's driving concept, and it pays off in one of the most profound final shots in years. This is her masterpiece; the film her whole career has built to; the script that is finally up to the challenge of being as dead serious as her direction. "Do your fucking jobs. Bring me people to kill," a superior CIA officer coldly states in one of the film's more telling moments. In most directors' hands, this would be a inhuman bellow, or a patriotic call to arms. In Bigelow's hands, it's just something that somebody said. She spurns the exciting for the banal, and in the banal finds something far more ambiguous; far more challenging; far more artistic. Her film isn't inherently pro-torture, pro-Obama, anti-War, or anything else. That part is up to you.


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