Zero Dark Thirty (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
12Jan/130

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

1Andrew LIKE BannerFor the next few minutes, try to forget everything you've heard about Zero Dark Thirty and instead focus on the film grammar on display.

We're plunged into total darkness.  In the background we hear screams, 911 calls going out by desperate people who can't be calmed, debris falling from the sky - by any rational measure it seems like the world is ending and we aren't around to bear witness to it.  Truth be told, for the average member of the audience this is going to be the case.  We only saw the same few images repeatedly, no sense in repeating what's already been drilled into our heads.

Then we finally see some signs of human movement.  A series of cloaked figures enter the room following a man who doesn't look like a Afghan or Iraqi citizen, but like a friend of mine.  He's bearded, heavyset, looks like he'd have a great smile if his role in this was to smile instead of torture.  He gets to work on the detainee who looks more like the enemy, and the prisoner starts to cry.  A cloth is held over the prisoners mouth while a jug filled with water is poured down his throat.

We have to rely on our memories to tell us who the good and bad guys are supposed to be in this conflict.  Because right now, it looks an awful lot like a schoolyard bully dressing himself up like the weaker players just to make a point.  "You want to play this game, we'll play it better than you and deeper."

One intriguing idea throughout the film is that whenever America binds together to destroy an enemy it easily assumes the most visually recognizable aspects of the opponent.

One intriguing idea throughout the film is that whenever America binds together to destroy an enemy it easily assumes the most visually recognizable aspects of the opponent.

Kathryn Bigelow is the master of reversing commonly accepted imagery and putting a new spin on it.  Since she started off with the brilliant vampire film Near Dark, which is about as explicit about gender as it is trans-mutative, and has done the same with action movies and war films.  After The Hurt Locker it seemed like she'd be the obvious choice directing a film about the investigation behind the whereabouts and hunting of Osama Bin Laden.  This is correct, but also results in a curiously safer film than I would have imagined in someone else's hands.

This is because half of Bigelow's job was already done for her by history.  The images of the humiliation and torture against the prisoners of Abu Ghraib already showed how we were willing to pervert the image of terrorist garb even further.  How else are we to show how ashamed we are at our own repellant history than to turn a suspected terrorist into a mock leader of the Ku Klux Klan?  As intense the scenes of torture and interrogation are in Zero Dark Thirty, they aren't outdone by what we know has happened in our recent past.

That's not to say they aren't without power.  Bigelow was very wise to catalogue the events of the hunt through an actress like Jessica Chastain.  She is one of the rising powerhouses of cinema right now, equally convincing as a down to earth housewife in The Tree of Life and as a woman terrified of the potential of her husband to destroy in Take Shelter.  Bigelow found the perfect actress to re-appropriate the imagery of the noble soldier.  This woman, who has played roles faithful and distrustful but almost always wives, can go so far as to tell a man dying of thirst to "Be honest" or else the torture will continue then drinking water in front of him.  Bigelow's choice to cast Chastain in this role is as brilliant as Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate, let the accepted image work against the role and create further unease.

When the raid finally occurs it unfolds as one of the most gripping assaults in cinema, partly because it insists on absolute silence and cold brutality.

When the raid finally occurs it unfolds as one of the most gripping assaults in cinema, partly because it insists on absolute silence and cold brutality.

Now comes an inevitable "unfortunately" due to several odd problems with the film.  In this case Bigelow is working with history instead of creating her own.  When she filmed The Hurt Locker, telling the story of a man so obsessed with war he will disarm bombs until he dies. she can draw from history but she is not in debt to it.  There are several scenes in Zero Dark Thirty that rely on actual attacks that occurred, the least powerful being one suicide bombing where a deadly outcome is signaled from the very beginning.  Even some of the more surprising moments are telegraphed because of recent history hanging thick in the air.  As a result, the film sometimes feels like it's on rails instead of springing forth into unknown territory.

This isn't the film built from a collective nightmare of what we had to do to catch an evil man, but overall a standard procedural without even the occasional bad ending Law and Order would give its audience.  The best scenes involve Chastain, her officer going into darker corners, donning a hijab amongst other garb to better match her opponent, and trying desperately to make connections that she feels are there.  The worst are effective but too in-debt to history with their outcome.  The most gripping and obvious example is the raid that concludes the film.  It is simultaneously the most realistic assault involving modern tactics I have seen, and one whose outcome is so well known there is a nagging sensation of "Get on with it" that I could not put away.

This is still a great movie.  Even the scenes where the outcome is telegraphed well in advance are filled with Bigelow's brand of tense care.  But, and this is another weird effect of the film, I can't help but wonder what the movie would have been like had we not caught Bin Laden.  This film needs a boogeyman, not a corpse wrapped in a sheet, and the promise of tomorrow feels too weak knowing we can once again turn our backs on the actions that led to his creation.

TailZero Dark Thirty (2012)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Screenplay written by Mark Boal.
Starring Jessica Chastain.

Posted by Andrew

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