19 December 2012


I've spent the last two weeks trying to figure out what to make of the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, even before there was a controversy surrounding that exact same subject, and in two weeks, I have gone through so many first paragraphs without ever getting further to the actual content of the movie than "Jessica Chastain is the lead actress", I can't tell you. In the end, I'm giving up: for the purposes of actually getting the damn thing reviewed, I'm just going pretend that it is a work of fiction with no real-world ramifications at all, and maybe once it has its wide release in January, we can come back to the topic and have a good conversation about. But just for the record: unlike many very smart people and like many other very smart people, I don't think the film is particularly ambivalent about torture - it doesn't celebrate torture, but doesn't doubt for a second that it was useful - and even if it was, ambivalence towards an evil act is no better than endorsing it.

I'd like to say that it took a great deal of sober introspection to decide how that made me feel, but that's exactly the point, that it didn't: the movie had me eating out of the palm of its hand by the ten-minute mark if not earlier, and that is exactly how you can tell that this is terrific filmmaking: it could take a person like myself, whom I would describe as "furiously anti-torture", and for 157 minutes be so exquisitely crafted that I just didn't care, about real-world considerations. Because, as a movie, damn me if Zero Dark Thirty isn't everything it has been hyped to be and more, a feverishly thrilling, decade-spanning CIA procedural that recounts the mechanics involved in finding Osama bin Laden using all the tricks of the spy trade, embodied in the stubborn, slim frame of fictionalised composite Maya (Jessica Chastain), recruited to the agency right out of high school, an intelligence expert of icy composure and no real personality to speak of, until the very last moment we see her in the summer of 2011, when she finally permits herself a reaction to her success - and that reaction is not at all triumphalism, but something much more akin to "I wasn't expecting that. Now what?"

After a lengthy audio montage of phone calls from inside the WTC towers on September 11th, 2001 - the only crippling misjudgment in the film, exploitative and pandering - the movie dumps us right in and never slows: Maya, newly arrived in Afghanistan, is confronted with the CIA's most unsavory intelligence-gathering tools, asked to pitch in a helping hand during a waterboarding session conducted by Dan (Jason Clarke), who will be her most steadfast colleague through the next several years. This rather grueling sequence, shot by director Kathryn Bigelow and DP Greig Fraser (the third and best job of three great jobs of cinematography by that man in 2012) in a much more intimate and interior version of the same juttery, handheld documentarian style Bigelow used in The Hurt Locker, is the first of an almost uninterrupted flow of "the CIA at work" scenes, in which Maya goes from a green agent finding her feet, to a hyper-competent specialist, to an intensely focused, almost Ahab-like figure, bent on finding Osama bin Laden, and capturing him or killing him, not for justice, not for revenge, and not for jingoistic bloodlust, but because after a while it's the only thing she knows how to do.

The film might be Bigelow's baby, a far more intense and detailed study of life under pressure than the overdetermined, overrated Hurt Locker, but it's Chastain's triumph: her short career has included great and not-so-great performances, but nothing in the same league as her Maya, an extraordinary, captivating blank space. We are never given a sliver of information about her personal life, and that's in Mark Boal's script; but we never get much about anyone else in the film, including Dan, or Jennifer Ehle's Jessica, or any of the other featured CIA operatives, and in those cases, the actors still create vibrant, living characters; but Chastain does not suggest an inner life for Maya on any level. Which, typing it out, sounds dreadful - far from it! What it gives us is a protagonist who is less a person than a force of will, and since Chastain is very clear choosing to strip Maya clean of personality rather than simply failing to give her one, it actually ends up being an impressive psychological study of an anti-personality; besides which, it results in the devastating final shot of the movie, for which I would not give up anything.

Though it might be The Chastain Show in so many ways, I certainly don't mean to denigrate the very real work Bigelow does in Zero Dark Thirty, and just the fact that the film is two and a half hours long and still flies by recklessly tells us what we need to know about how tightly its director controls the pacing and rhythm of the film. The documentary-style thriller is extremely old at this point, of course, and Bigelow invents no wheels; she merely uses the wheels already available to her to unbelievably good effect, making a film in which every little bit of data that Maya or the rest are able to scrape up through ingenuity or luck feel like the most important thing we've ever seen on screen; a mid-film sequence in which a character makes a series of decisions ending in death becomes one of the best thriller moments in 2012, as we are keyed in that something is amiss, but can't help but want things to turn out as well as the characters do.

The most impressive bit of filmmaking, though, is surely the movie-ending raid on bin Laden's compound, which is already a brave structural gambit - it's the first time we've been separated from Maya's POV, and we leave it for what feels like a good 30 minutes - but is also a terrific mixture of editing, sound design, and sickly green-tinted cinematography that turns a simple action sequence into a horrifying, chaotic "you are there" gesture.

What the film is not, is the unmitigated no-holds-barred Best Thing of 2012, the way the early awards season would have you believe: though it is a thrilling experience, it is almost solely experiential, depicting events and processes without having any particular insight into them, or even an apparent interest in such insight. It's unbelievably solid craftsmanship in the absence of any kind of overriding ideas other than the "cinematic journalism" Boal and Bigelow have been talking about; and while it is very great at that, journalism does not, as a rule, purport to be ageless.



Jeremy said...

I like that people were a bit cooler to The Hurt Locker than most are also loving this movie. I think THL has some intense scenes, and a GREAT performance from Jeremy Renner, but how that thing was suddenly elevated to the unmitigated no-holds-barred Best Thing of 2009 status, I'll never know. I'm still disgusted it won best Screenplay over Inglourious Basterds.

THAT SAID, I got high hopes for this one, and I can't wait to see it in January. Even with the torture and stuff.

KingKubrick said...

While I should wait to see the film before I pass judgement on it, I find it odd that some many reviewers are praising it for being apolitical. I don't really see the point of tackling such a heated real world subject and then just presenting in a faux-journalistic way. The very act of not taking a stance on the events presented is taking a stance, which hearkens to the implicit endorsement of torture Tim touched upon in the review. Why use a real world event, divorce from real world context and fashion it as thrilling procedural action yarn? It comes across as a 'touchdown we got him! wooo!' kind of way to present the material. Honestly to a non-American like myself it seems like a jingoistic propaganda piece. I appreciate that Tim judged it on its merits as pure filmmaking but I don't really get why this needed to be a feature film and not a documentary if Bigelow was going to take that route.

Tim said...

Jeremy- My big concern with the film was that I my take on THL was "good, nowhere near great", and ZDT had assuaged that fear in barely any time at all. So I think you're safe.

KingKubrick- I can't say that it reads as jingoism or propaganda on its own merits as a narrative - no "rah rah" at all, even for a second - but the real-world context of the filmmaking makes it all uncomfortably free of nuance or critical thought. Which is why I prefaced my review the way I did - I wasn't going to ever get a review out if I tried to grapple with that, right now.

There's definitely plenty to talk about on the subject, and I hope to do that once things have calmed down a bit and I'm not in "OHMYGOD HAVE TO REVIEW THINGS BEFORE JANUARY 1!" mode. That it sees apoliticism in a place that only a politically disengaged American would possibly think apoliticism is okay is, to me, beyond question.

KingKubrick said...

No qualms about the review- you did a great job of pointing out the reservations you had and then diving into how it works on it's own terms as a piece of cinema. Just voicing my thoughts on the critical reaction to it so far. I'm sure we'll all get to discuss it at great length when it's nominated for all the oscars.

Brian said...

As someone with very similar political views, and views on torture, and being very worried this movie is going to argue that "torture is why Bin Laden is dead" and things like that, let me just say...

I fucking hate you for having already seen this. Bastard. :)

Thrash Til' Death said...

While I obviously can't comment on the film's political stance or lack thereof, I do think that there's one major roadblock to saying it represents American jingoistic triumphalism, and it's the same one to saying The Dark Knight Rises was playing on the Occupy Wall Street movement. As Bob Chipman has emphatically and repeatedly pointed out over the last several months (http://moviebob.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/zero-dark-thirty-first-trailer.html), Zero Dark Thirty was in production before the raid on Bin Laden's compound.

KingKubrick said...

Yes..but they still then drew on the real life events when completing the film, so all the criticisms about its apoloticism remain valid.

Chris Pauley - Evil Twin Music said...

Tim, politics aside, you mention the handheld style that was used in The Hurt Locker. Will those of us whose inner ears can't handle the whole shakycam thing without turning green and breaking into a cold sweat be able to manage this one? I really want to see it, but don't want to be asking for my money back 20 minutes into it. :)

Tim said...

Chris- Ooh, hard call. I'd say that if The Hurt Locker turned your stomach, this one probably will too. In particular, the ending raid sequence would be a horrible trial.

Erik said...

Saw this last night - woo wide release - and am also struggling to sift out its politics, having avoided most of the dialogue surrounding it last month.

It certainly is apolitical, and I feel that its disengagement is a very purposeful choice to bring us closer to Maya. More ambitiously, I think that its apolitics a comment on the political neutrality of the executive branch bureaucracy in general, and how that neutrality is absolutely necessary to its function. Government workers at State, DoD, Treasury, and such are notorious for their ability to swallow personal politics in favor of getting the job done - a necessary survival mechanism when your boss is Bush one day, Obama the next, and who knows after that. I love the scene in ZDT when Maya and her cohorts of the hour are discussing strategy and Obama appears on the news in the background, stuttering that "America does not torture." The characters look at the TV for a moment and then return to their conversation, entirely without comment. They're so far removed from politics that it's not even worth thinking about. The film acknowledges that this controversy exists, but only somewhere else.

Maya is the best at it all. She's the ideal bureaucrat. An offhand remark that Pakistan is "pretty fucked up" at the beginning is the only time she ever comes close to verbalizing judgment on anything, anywhere, other than other peoples' getting in the way of her doing her job. The film even denies the audience the easy, politically-charged image of Bin Laden's face, choosing instead to focus completely on Maya's reaction as she opens the body bag.

ZDT is trying to keep us cemented in Maya's PoV for the duration, and in order to succeed at that it has to be apolitical. Because Maya has to be apolitical.

This reading makes the long raid sequence at the end a little problematic, because like you said it completely leaves Maya's PoV, and that's something I'm still thinking about. Maybe Bigelow just wanted to toss in some really top-notch military thriller stuff. Because, man, I was thrilled.

In any case, I hope you do follow through with that discussion of ZDT's politics you promised in your first paragraph. I'd like to hear your opinions.

Tim said...

Some very good thoughts, thanks for sharing.

I must be honest: I think I am likely to be too much of a chicken to actually write that political essay. I feel like enough has been spent on that topic out in the greater internets, and I know I'd come down on the "humorless scold" side of the debate, and I just don't know that I'm up for that right now. But it's certainly a possibility still, Lord knows the conversation won't be going away prior to the Oscars...

Erik said...

Haha, that's true, and totally understandable. I'll go hunting for controversy somewhere else, I'm sure it's not hard to find.

Looking forward to hearing whether or not we should go see Gangster Squad! And the Oscars, as always, whew. Thanks always for your insightful analyses!

Unknown said...

Concerning the production of the film prior to the raid, Bigelow herself states in a New Yorker Talk of the Town article by Dexter Filkins (author of The Forever War) that she and Boal scrapped the film they were doing about how Bin Laden couldn't be found and wrote an entirely new screenplay with additional interviews, etc.

Tim, I think you should write that political essay! Humorless scold or not, it can be surprising what comes out of oneself in a polemic. A different writing challenge at the least.

As far as cinematic journalism, this falls far below par and as commentators have mentioned, including the journalist Jane Mayer (some might say 'expert' on U.S.-CIA torture) once again in the New Yorker, produces scenes that do not represent the dissent about torture & techniques expressed by certain CIA officers, FBI officers and others ON SITE. Actions that provided actual drama, conflict, etc. could have made the film even more dynamic.

BUT, lastly, there has been near silence on the film's--and the raid's--main assumption: that the assassination of someone ordered by a state is moral or legal. The fact that it broke international law and avoided addressing deep ethical human questions about revenge and state power has rarely been discussed in reviews and criticisms.

Perhaps a discussion will appear from you, sir, as gradually Academy folks like Clennon call for other voters to boycott the film for Best Picture & all awards. They are awards after all, certainly worth less (ethically) than giving the strong, false impressions that torture leads to accurate intelligence OR is worth doing at all despite whatever ends it achieves.

Lastly, as it is your blog & rating, you certainly have the ability to rate something from an aesthetic, fictional point of view & then create a secondary rating of ?/10 for its direct claim at the beginning of the film as "Based on First Hand Accounts of Actual Events"--certainly a journalistic teaser if any existed.