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Josh Reviews Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow has directed some terrific films.  I’m a sucker for Strange Days (the futuristic sci-film from 1995, written by James Cameron and starring Ralph Fiennes) and The Hurt Locker (click here for my review) was terrific, but I’d say with Zero Dark Thirty she has made her masterpiece.

Based on true events (though to what extent the film is completely factually accurate seems to be a subject of much debate — more on that in just a minute), the film begins on September 11th, 2001. Over a black screen, we hear intercut bits of dialogue — mostly phone calls — of panicked people on that terrible day.  The film takes us through the long hunt for Osama bin Laden until May 2, 2011 — almost a full decade later — when he was shot and killed in a Pakistani compound by US forces.  The focus of the film is on a woman named Maya (we never learn her last name), played by Jessica Chastain.  A CIA operative, when we first meet her in 2003, she has been assigned to the US embassy in Pakistan, with her focus being the hunt for bin Laden.  In several difficult-t0-watch early sequences in the film, Maya observes a fellow operative, Dan (Jason Clarke), torturing a detainee with suspected ties to al-Qaeda.  One tidbit of information that he mentions turns into the breadcrumb that Maya spends years following, trying in many different ways to turn a potential hint of a lead into something concrete.

The film is an incredibly complex piece of work.  For almost three full hours, we live with Maya through the myriad twists and turns of the CIA’s investigations during their hunt for bin Laden.  The film piles on the details, not in a confusing way but rather in a way that illuminates the insanely daunting needle-in-a-haystack nature of the search.  Kathryn Bigelow’s patient, taut direction works in perfect concert with Mark Boal’s dense, sophisticated script to bring all these details to life and to make them sing.  It is in the accumulation of details, in the way the film thrusts us into the head-spinningly complex web of secrets and doubts in which Maya and her fellow CIA investigators must live as they push forward their work, that the film weaves its magic and the story gains its power.

This is not a film for someone not willing to pay attention.  The movie does not spell everything out for the audience.  (I was reminded of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in the way the film throws around names and terminology without bothering to explain things, immersing the audience in the jargon of this world.)  There are many characters in the film who I found to be compelling even though I never quite understood who they were supposed to be.  (What exactly was the role in the CIA of Mark Strong’s character, for instance?)  But the genius of the film is the way it tells us everything that we need to know.  The other details don’t matter.  Mark Strong’s character is senior to Maya in the CIA, and really what more do we need to know?  Would knowing his full name and job title and exact position in the CIA hierarchy elevate my understanding of the film in any way?  I do not believe it would.

The other genius aspect of the film is the way Ms. Bigelow mounts the film’s action/suspense sequences, brilliantly weaving them into what is otherwise a very talky movie filled with characters behind desks, in conference rooms, watching video monitors, and reading reports.  (None of those “talky” scenes in the film are in any way boring, of course.  Quite the opposite.  As I have been attempting to describe above, Mr. Boal and Ms. Bigelow make all of those scenes incredibly vital and intense.)  But this is a bigger story than just that of people in offices, and so we also spend time with the men and women on the front lines of often very-risky secret operations in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Arab world.  There’s a phenomenal sequence in the middle of the film in which a group of operatives in Pakistan are in a car driving through a packed market, using their technology to try to hone in an individual in a cell-phone who might be a key al-Qaeda courier.  It’s a thrilling scene — intense and scary — that ranks with any great spy scene I have ever before seen in a movie.  I mentioned suspense just now, and there’s another sequence in which a group of operatives are about to meet with a potential source in the center of a US base in Afghanistan (the Camp Chapman attack).  You just know something is going to go wrong, and as the sequence continues and a lone, beat-up car slowly approaches the base, Ms. Bigelow just keeps turning the screws tighter and tighter and tighter on the audience until the tension is nearly unbearable.  It’s astounding.

But the film’s crown jewel, of course, is the final half hour or so which depicts SEAL team six’s raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.  I almost didn’t dare to breathe during this sequence, the tension is so great.  Point by point, step by step, Ms. Bigelow depicts the entire operation start-to-finish, and it is jaw-droppingly extraordinary.  You are right there with the soldiers, feeling the tension of every step.  Through Ms. Bigelow’s careful direction, the geography of the compound is perfectly clear, and the logic and tactics of the SEAL team’s strategy are perfectly conveyed to the audience watching, as we sit perched on the edge of our seats.  I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better-directed sequence in a film this year.  It is masterful.

There are some wonderful actors in supporting roles in the film.  Jason Clarke is spectacular as Dan, Maya’s fellow CIA operative and the man we see conducting several brutal torture sessions in the first half of the film.  I love Mr. Clarke’s work, solid and unblinking, showing us a man who knows his job incredibly well (as terrible as that job may be) and who is not going to let that job break him (even though we see how it does, just a little bit.)  Mark Strong gives a terrific monologue mid-movie (that is in all the trailers) and is a very strong presence in the film’s second half.  Kyle Chandler gives great asshole as Maya’s tough CIA station-chief in Pakistan.  Joel Edgerton (one of a truckload of great actors criminally underused by the Star Wars prequels) is terrific as one of the lead SEAL team operatives, as is Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt.  (I could listen to the scoffing way he says “Osama bin Laden” all day — and so can you, since that line is in the film’s trailer.)  Mark Duplass, Lost’s Harold Perrineau, James Gandolfini, and many more great actors pop up here and there throughout the film.  But Zero Dark Thirty belongs to Jessica Chastain, turning in a star-making performance as the haunted CIA agent Maya.  In a laugh-out-loud moment late in the film, Maya describes herself as a “mother-fucker” and it’s an apt description.  This is a tough woman, not easy to like, without much apparent interest in the social graces or making friends.  She’s not a loose-cannon in the typical, cliche movie way.  She’s just a loner who is incredibly focused on her work, and very good at her job, and not willing to put up with bullshit from others.  As the film goes on, and the years progress, and the hunt for bin Laden begins to seem more and more impossible, she sinks deeper and deeper into her work.  She seems to cast herself off from the tether of human existence, focusing only on bin Laden.  Ms. Chastain gives an astounding performance, one that is compelling and nuanced.  It is Maya’s story that gives the film its resonance, as we see the cost to this young woman — emblematic of so many other good young men and women — of the pursuit of bin Laden.

Which brings me to all the hoo-ha over the film’s depiction of torture.  There are some who accuse Zero Dark Thirty of endorsing torture.  I happen to believe this is a wrong-headed view and not at all representative of what actually happens in the film.  Devin Faraci’s intelligent, reasonable analysis for badassdigest.com fully sums up my point of view, so I encourage you all to click through to that link (after you’ve seen the film) to read this calm, cogent assessment (as well as the Glenn Kenny piece Mr. Faraci links to).

But I would argue that this whole debate as to whether Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture as a means of gathering information is almost entirely missing the point of the film, at least as I saw it.  To me, Zero Dark Thirty is, at the end of the day, about the incredible human cost of the hunt for bin Laden.  We see this cost on America’s “enemies” (specifically the many detainees we see tortured) and we see it on the American “heroic” character, Maya.  (I put “enemies” and “heroic” in quotation marks because one could argue whether all of these young Muslim men in cages were really America’s enemies, and whether Maya was heroic at all.  Reasonable people might disagree on these points.)  It’s not important whether the torture worked.  What’s important is that many, many people were tortured.  The film does not judge this.  Presenting events is not the same as endorsing them.  It is left up to us, the audience, to evaluate what we are seeing and to make our own moral judgments.  Was it worth it?  Was the human cost worth it?  The opening scene (which I met above, allowing to listen to the heartbreaking voices of the terror attack on 9/11) gives the film its context.  This is critical, because in evaluating the events depicted in Zero Dark Thirty, we must remember what they were in response to, and we must try to remember what we all felt on 9/11, and on 9/12 and 9/13.  With that context in place, we must then decide whether we condone or condemn the actions taken by the United States and the many men and women operating on our behalf in response to 9/11.  It is a fact that people were tortured by men and women operating under the auspices of the United States.  At the end of the day, does it matter whether that torture elicited any useful intelligence?  Some might argue that of course it does, while others might suggest that it does not.  The film allows for all of these viewpoints.  I find the structure of Zero Dark Thirty to be extraordinarily sophisticated in the way it does not build any moral judgements into the story being told, and in the way one’s sympathies can shift as the film unspools.  I think it’s a shame that sophistication appears to have been missed or misunderstood by many who have seen and written about this film.

Zero Dark Thirty is a tough, unflinching film.  It is not for the faint of heart, or for those who want nothing more than escapism from their movies.  I found it to be staggeringly compelling, a knock-out of a film that I have been thinking about ever since I saw it.  For a film as unpleasant to watch at times (because of what is being depicted on-screen), I can’t believe how eager I am to see it again, and to dig even deeper into the film’s complexities and moral dilemmas.  This is an important film, and a great work of movie-making.

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