Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

I’m surprised by the society I live in more often than I’d like. Having gotten to the theater earlier than usual this time around, I had a chance to catch the “preshow.” There was an advertisement for a TV movie about the case to convict Casey Anthony, and I found myself amazed at our culture’s desire, perhaps need even, to regurgitate current events so quickly. Despite that, there I was, buying a ticket for a movie about an event that, for all intents and purposes, just happened. Having really enjoyed The Hurt Locker (despite being a little bit bitter about its Oscar win at the expense of Avatar!), I was willing to give Kathryn Bigelow the benefit of the doubt with Zero Dark Thirty, particularly given that she was working with the government to do everything that she could to get the story “right.”

Where The Hurt Locker really shines is in how tightly focused it is. Rather than bogging down on the justifications or lack thereof for the Iraqi conflict like so many other films of the past decade do, it manages to avoid the political in order to stay focused on the personal. It’s much more about Renner’s William and his addiction to a certain kind of lifestyle, and just how strange that lifestyle is. By that comparison, Zero Dark Thirty is, by necessity given its subject, unavoidably a child of its environment. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in this case, I think that it’s not quite as strong as it might have been.

Essentially, the first half of Zero Dark Thirty is a procedural, and whenever I think of procedurals, All The President’s Men comes to mind as the gold standard. That film does an incredible job of keeping the audience grounded in the facts (and there are a LOT of facts) without ever losing its dramatic impetus. Whenever I watch the film, I’m always impressed by how well the writers explain everything to the audience. If some of it goes over their heads at first, that’s understandable, but it’s all there. That’s often one of the hardest things about films dealing with historic events. You’ve got to stay grounded in the facts and you’ve also got to keep things interesting. If we’re going to use that standard, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t quite measure up. There’s a lot that goes on that doesn’t all connect quite as organically as it could have. There are times when another Arabic name I’m not familiar with is uttered, and I find myself saying “who’s that again?” Still though, it’s not as bad as watching a Lord of the Rings movie.

Zero Dark Thirty is very much a film of two halves. The first half is the aforementioned procedural where they tackle the logistics of the manhunt. It’s solid, and manages to pull the rug out right when you’re starting to get settled. There’s one moment where something BIG happens unexpectedly, and it was one of the biggest surprises I’ve experienced in a movie theater in a long, long time. I was expecting a similar event that happened later, having seen the event in the trailer and being relatively good at those matching card games when I was a kid, but the earlier one comes without warning.

The last hour or so feels very different from what’s come before, as the focus shifts entirely to the manhunt to kill Bin Laden. Fortunately, it’s not an inorganic shift. If the film’s accurate, then the administration took a huge risk in going in, because the evidence really is incredibly sparse.

Essentially, there’s this guy. He takes messages to Bin Laden. He lives in this house, and we can tell that there are a lot of women and children inside the house. We can tell all of this from surveillance video that’s really, helpful. There’s an extra woman inside the house. There shouldn’t be an extra woman inside the house. The guy who must be her husband NEVER COMES OUT OF THE HOUSE, so he’s probably Bin Laden. It’s striking that Zero Dark Thirty billed as being about the “largest manhunt in history” and, in spite of all of our society’s technological advances, they go into battle on a hunch.

In the movie, other folks are a bit unsure about whether or not the guy is Bin Laden, most leaning toward “probably.” On the other hand, Jessica Chastain’s Maya is completely convinced. I don’t know entirely why. She would certainly like for it to be true, but that doesn’t mean that it is. That’s one thing that I would have liked more of in the script: motivational factors for Maya. I don’t know exactly why she did her job, aside from the fact that she cared a LOT about doing it. It almost seemed to be a means to an end, as opposed to a reason to fully develop the character in a three-dimensional way. As much as I have lamented scenes where a filmmaker has the obligatory “so this happened to me when I was a child, and that’s why I’ll never get married” scene, this is one case where it would have been a welcome addition. Toward the end, I figured that she was doing it (at least partially) for reasons of vengeance, but it’s still a bit murky. She’s purported to be a “killer” and yet she tells someone late in the film that she hasn’t actually done anything special for the CIA except for look for Bin Laden. It seems strange to me that she would be made a major part of a team in a field that intense, much less part of the unit trying to track down Bin Laden, on such a scant record. Chastain herself is solid, but the lack of information about her character’s motivation make it a little bit harder than it should be to empathize with her.

Back to the second half . . . the raid itself is easily the most exciting part of the film, even if there are a few logical inconsistencies. I didn’t know that one of the helicopters actually crashed! That’s not something that I had expected, and it certainly provides for a fly in the ointment. There are a few other bits that come across as a bit strange, particularly when the soldiers’ natural human instincts come to bear on some innocents that have just witnessed them kill some people they loved dearly.

I’d wondered how much of the raid would actually be depicted. A few of us had thought that perhaps the team would show the team going in, and then the team coming out. Nope. There’s a fair amount of detail in the way they go in, what happens inside, and how they leave. It’s exciting stuff. I had no idea that the compound was so large. On that front, I think that Bigelow and Boal could have made things a bit more clear. It’s insinuated that there are only 2 choppers, but then there are clearly more than that, as soldiers that seem to be stranded are back at base later, and an endless numbers of doors are blown off by an ever-increasing group of soldiers.

Zero Dark Thirty has quickly become one of the most controversial films of the last year, perhaps even last several years, and I’m not quite sure why that is. A lot of folks seem to think that the film supports the use of torture as an acceptable interrogation tactic. Personally, I don’t really think that the film is advocating a course of action so much as it’s depicting actual events. In the case of these operatives, it’s apparent that they’re willing to do just about anything for their cause, and Chastain’s transformation is quick and complete. Even though she’s not comfortable with it at first, she’s more than willing to keep things moving if it means that she gets more information and shifts from uneasy observer to willing participant very quickly. Even as they realize that the rest of the world won’t like it, these people see this course of action as completely necessary. Fortunately, the film doesn’t shy away from explicitly depicting the horrible things that many American operatives did to those in their charge. At first, I thought that the filmmakers weren’t going to actually show anybody being waterboarded, as the start of the process is seen in a long shot with soldiers blocking the audience’s view of what’s happening. Fortunately, they get up close and personal with the nasty business, which I think is necessary, given the horrible price that these poor guys had to pay.

It’s a tough sequence to watch too, because your feelings as a moviegoer bump up against your feelings as a human being. It’s only natural to want the protagonists of whatever film you’re watching to succeed, or, in this case, to get the information that they need. Given the nature of the process they’re using, at first I was surprised to find myself on their “side.” That changed, partially because of how explicit the scene is. You see a poor man screaming and struggling when he knows that he’s going to be waterboarded. You see his face, completely drenched, spitting water up in the desperate struggle to breathe. You see him fighting to keep from being put in a box. The POV shot that’s used when he’s shut in is perfect.

I think it’s pivotal to realize that Bigelow and Boal are not shying away from the horror of what happened. If they were trying to advocate the use of torture, it wouldn’t have been hard to frame the scene in such a way that might make it easier on the eyes. It’s because of how explicit it is that you realize the terrible price that comes from stripping away another person’s human dignity so completely that you’re walking around with that person on a leash. And this is AFTER he’s been just been released from the restraints that kept him on his feet all night long with his arms outstretched.

It’s also important that the prisoner starts shouting random days of the week as he’s screaming in an attempt to stay out of the box. How reliable is information given in these circumstances? Khalid Sheik Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times. It’s been determined since that a victim is willing to say just about anything just to get people to stop hurting him. The only time that I think that the film solidifies any kind of pro-torture stance is in a meeting that the National Security Advisor has with the task force’s leader. After the leader is asked if they can get any proof that Bin Laden is actually in the house in question, he responds, “by asking who? The detainee program’s shut down.” That’s the only occasion in the film where I felt that the use of torture was being supported in any other world except the crazy one that these operatives live in.

In Zero Dark Thirty, I was surprised to be reminded of an age-old question. “What hath god wrought?” Perhaps that’s the real debate that should be had here. There is something wrong with a group of people doing terrible things in the name of their god and another group of people responding by saying that their god has told them what they must do in retaliation. We’re not talking about that part anymore, are we?


4 stars (out of 5)


eric said...

Nice job, Adam. I do believe the film had a "This is what happened to me and it's why I never got married" moment, and it's the death of Maya's friend midway through the film. In fact, Maya's character was so poorly defined, that as soon as a "friend" showed up, I knew the woman would be a goner. That was her only purpose -- to propel Maya's actions in the film's second half.

I liked ZDT for the same reasons you did, but I wish it had spent more effort on dimensionalizing Maya's character. If that depth would have included some harrowing doubt about the morality of torture, so much the better.

Adam said...

I think that the moment that you're referring to does a great job of informing Maya's future actions from that point on, but still don't get where her motivation came from previously. Like I said earlier, we're told that this woman is a "killer," but then she can't describe a single thing she's done for the Agency outside of hunting for Bin Laden. Still though, it's always good to see Jennifer Ehle in just about anything.

A friend of mine insists that the character has a daughter that can be seen in the background in some photos in her office, and that certainly would have been a really interesting path to follow from a narrative standpoint.