Kathryn Bigelow: Zero Dark Thirty (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Kathryn Bigelow: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

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Not content to rest on the success of The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's last film, to-date, is a close examination of the process and psychological toll Americans withstood during the hunt for Osama bin Laden.  Andrew reviewed the film once before and was impressed, if not wowed, by Bigelow's willingness to blur enemy and ally together.  Now he and Kyle are looking at it from a new vantage point, removed from the fanfare of the '12 election and awards season, and with new eyes question its worth in an America where we've only now gone a month without a combat death of an American soldier for the first time in a decade.

Pale shadowAndrewCommentaryBannerI want to start on something that we discussed a bit when we were talking about The Hurt Locker last week.  You had mentioned that it was a smash success when, yes, it won many awards but it didn't exactly light the box office on fire.  Four years later Kathryn Bigelow returned to the fertile emotional and political ground of our post-9/11 state for Zero Dark Thirty.

The Hurt Locker still haunts my memory while Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT from this point on) does not.  It's not that ZDT is a failure by any stretch of the word, except perhaps as an ethical treatment of torture (something I don't agree with but we must discuss), and it made almost $150 million worldwide as well as winning Bigelow another slew of rewards.  But it just doesn't resonate the same with me as The Hurt Locker or even Near Dark.

So, now that we've got all of Bigelow's films to-date on our viewing radar, where did you fall with ZDT?

Kyle Commentary BannerThe first time I watched ZDT I was caught a little off-guard and my appreciation grew substantially afterward. The movie was more subdued than I had expected, coming from the tense suspense and action of The Hurt Locker, and I was especially impressed with how Bigelow handled the climactic raid. What ultimately left the strongest impression overall was the way ZDT refused to build any kind of conventional thriller-style suspense—we see the intelligence gathering and interpreting process as a slow, mostly grinding and disappointing one. There are a handful of moments of action, but they don't come off as exciting, and when Bin Laden's compound is finally stormed, we get a slow and deliberate exercise free of any action conventions. There is a lot going on here, but the lasting impression for me was always the way Bigelow stripped the film of the more classically entertaining elements she injects so well into The Hurt Locker, resulting in a more draining, patience-testing experience that mimics Maya's journey throughout the film.

This is fitting considering the way Bigelow has always adjusted her chosen conventions and formal techniques in relation to her characters (and we see the same thing with her handling of the suspense in The Hurt Locker)—but this time around ZDT didn't impress me as much. I don't know that my reaction to the film changed dramatically, but the magnitude of the reaction did. This is still a complicated movie with a lot of impressive things going on, but this second time through I didn't feel like I took as much away from it.

Let's start with the torture material that dominates the early scenes—I'm curious to get your thoughts there, and whether they're any different than when you first watched the movie.I am in controlNewer Andrew cutout commentaryMy reaction to the torture scenes is much the same as it was when I first reviewed the film.  I realize that no film exists in a vacuüm and that quite obviously 9/11 weighs heavily on the film from the very start.  But the way that Bigelow sets up the first scene, already putting us in the world of torture after the darkness of screaming and cries from that day, makes it seem like the Americans are the bad guys right from the start.  I'm still impressed by the decision, and it makes the way that Maya and her comrades adopt the garb and techniques of their enemy more foreboding about their mental destination.

I'm also still surprised at the response to those scenes, especially those who consider them an apologist stance on torture.  How, in the context of the film, could anyone walk away from the grim façade of the Americans beating down their prisoner while Bigelow places the camera back to see how looming their shadows are over him?  There is no neutrality here, but a constant reminder of the outright evil being inflicted on people smaller than themselves because they're angry and because they can.  The only way I can see these moments being any more deliberate in their ethical viewpoint is if Bigelow merged the film with Near Dark a bit and Chastain started feasting on the prisoner.

But on my rewatch I find myself disappointed in the way Bigelow handles the entire film precisely because of those opening scenes.  If Bigelow had just jumped straight to the first visual moments without the darkness of 9/11 preceding them in the film, our moral and geopolitical grounding would have been devastatingly skewed.  Even with the knowledge of 9/11 we would have to find some immediate justification for what is happening.  That darkness and audio shows that Bigelow is aware, in some fashion, that this film is not in a moral gray spot and has real world ramifications.  Problem is that the real world ramifications are largely non-existent once the torture is off-screen.  She shows a willingness to allow her text to engage the world and then narrows it so completely to Maya and her mission.  It's a good procedural at that point, with some stunning moments, but less fascinating than the larger cultural clash at play in The Hurt Locker.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI'm wondering if that's part of why the movie had less of an impact on me this time around. I was impressed that Bigelow didn't allow the movie to engage with the kind of cultural elation that more escapist, action-packed fare would cater to, but that's a bit of a one-time effect. Further removed from a context where that dialed-down response acts as such an immediate counter, there isn't as much left to dig into.

One interesting thing coming from the early torture scenes is, as you mentioned, the way they prefigure a kind of mental and moral descent that I'm not sure ever fully happens. In those early scenes Maya is treated as if she's going to break when faced with the torture tactics being used on the prisoner—the Jason Clarke character treats her like a child without the fortitude to deal with the brutality of the situation. First, Bigelow and Chastain counter this by having Maya neglect her face-obscuring mask-hood thing when going back in for a second session. The Clarke character asks her if she's going to put her mask on, implying that she must be afraid of revealing her face to the detainee, and she replies, "Why, he's never getting out, right?" This establishes her as not only every bit as emotionally and mentally strong as the male characters, but also as someone with a clear, unvarnished understanding of the world in which she operates.

But as these scenes stretch on we get moments where she hardens, witnessing everything that has been done to the prisoner and coldly telling him "You can help yourself by being truthful." These scenes imply a kind of moral compromising in the face of what is perceived as necessity, leading to corruption—but this is never fully addressed in Maya's arc, because it's arguably the only time we see any kind of compromising of morals or ethics on this level. It is important that she suggests a more intelligent, humane approach to intelligence gathering that ultimately gets information from this first prisoner, but the way the movie moves entirely away from such a significant moral conflict betrays a lot of what's interesting about the initial scenes.One of manyNewer Andrew cutout commentaryIt also gets less interesting visually.  Before then we end up with the fusion of American enemies with Americans.  Maya dons a dark wig and a hijab to interrogate prisoners.  Dan grows a large beard and leads a team of anonymous hooded soldiers to round up suspects for torture.  Even one of the CIA higher-ups, in what I believe is his only scene, gives one of the only outright displays of religious faith in the film by giving a Muslim prayer.  This isn't a one-off motif for Bigelow, she's built most of her films along fusing conflicting visual symbols together to attain a discomforting effect.  I also love how this is even referenced in the dialogue in a direct call to the moral murkiness of their surroundings by having Dan, "We don't know what we don't know," in a callback to Donald Rumsfeld's dubiously evil framing of the second Iraq war as discovering the "Unknown known."

There's a key transition point there with the way Joseph Bradley, played by Kyle Chandler, allows his rage to froth out and the film starts reverting back to "Americanizing" itself.  Maya loses the wig and starts investigating by throwing herself into pounds of information and Dan goes back to wearing a clean suit for the CIA at Langley.  It's a moral reboot in a way, reminding both the audience and the characters that they aren't the evil ones and that they need to go back to what's right.

But aside from the very last scene the moral tension is largely gone.  Maya gets the information she needs through sacrifice and hard-work, and when her crying relief comes at the end it feels less like a, "What did I become to get here," moment and more as, "I am deflated and can finally rest."  What's usually the end point for Bigelow's films, assuming an identity (The Hurt Locker) or having one forced on you (Near Dark) is at the midpoint.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThere is potential to engage with some of that tension later in the film with scenes that make explicit the bloodlust of the CIA in their operations. We have the scene where Mark Strong's character comes into a meeting, angry with the lack of progress, and his speech culminates in something like "Give me a list of people to kill." And a friendly conversation between Maya and a colleague where we see Maya casually watching video of a bombing while they joke about baking cake for an informant.

I give them credit for presenting the growing and alarming comfort that these characters have with death being the frequent end goal of their profession, but exploring that effect on the individual would have made for a more complex and interesting conclusion.

That said, one of the elements of the movie that maintained its effect on me this time around was the final raid, which is appropriately anti-climactic. It's interesting how the movie positions the killing of Bin Laden as an emotional triumph for Maya—a resolution to her years of hard work and sacrifice—as opposed to exploring with any complexity how this affects the larger world stage.You will gain no sightNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThe raid triggers a big question I've waited to ask you since we started this Bigelow project.  Your enthusiasm for ZDT was much higher when we first discussed it over a year ago, but you made one observation that I really liked and want to know if you still hold.  I have to paraphrase a bit, but you had said something to the effect that the final raid showed how no military action has ethical considerations and is at best ruthlessly efficient.  How can you elaborate on that now?


Tiny Kyle CommentaryI do still really respect that part of the movie. The seal team that goes in at the end isn't comically excited about potentially killing Bin Laden. They aren't one-dimensional gung-ho action figures—at one point one of them questions the validity of the mission, based as it is on an educated assumption and not certainty, because he and/or his friends could die. We're seeing high-level military operations here as a job, not a heroic archetype like in recent efforts like Lone Survivor.

Even the way the raid is presented supports this notion of a classified military operation as a group of professionals carrying out actions based on their own expertise. The mission doesn't go smoothly—one of the helicopters crashes, and they run into a few unbreachable doors in the compound—and when these obstacles come up, we get no contrived heroics. Instead, reasonable, rational decisions are made which often amount to, "we can't get through here, let's go back and try another way." When occupants of Bin Laden's compound are killed, it is quick and without ceremony, treated not as action, but as a quick way of resolving a barrier to the mission.

The only thing that gives these scenes any gravity at all is the overall context of the story. We know historically the magnitude behind what the Seal team is doing—otherwise, with simply the aesthetic techniques for guidance, it would be a cold and ambiguous scene. It goes back to your first observations that the early scenes flip around our conception of the American characters and position them as the villains—here the Seals are only heroes because of the narrative point of view.Bow and dieNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThat moment also plays as a sort of anti-climax after the two hours of buildup.  All of the action is set against the harsh vision of the group's night-vision goggles, so whatever glimpses of the action we do get are painful to look at and are the results instead of the action itself.  Compare that to the exact opposite approach from The Avengers where our good guys are slaughtering an entire army singlehandedly and the camera stays entirely on the heroes posing and looking dramatic.

That's what ZDT does best is work within those potentially volatile spaces.  The terrifying lead-up into the first torture room, the constant whirr and dark overhead shots of the strike team, and, my favorite sequence in the film, when the camera follows a trail of wires into a mess of communication noise as Maya attempts to separate one bit of information from the tangle in front of her.  Unlike her other features, there is no overall style that ZDT is adapting from.  Visually it's like nothing else in her catalogue in that it does not resemble anything else out at the time.  I'll be interested to see if she continues to devleop along that stark path or not, even if I'm not as enraptured by the results here as I would like.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI do still think it's a significant part of her filmography, but further down the road the value of that may be more "interesting" than effective as an overall film. This is still stronger to me than something like Blue Steel, which was more engaging on a basic level in its efforts to directly subvert a genre, or Point Break, which I would probably watch again before this one on sheer entertainment value. One of the most interesting things to come from this project has been seeing how Bigelow's strengths as a director come from an ability to be a formal chameleon to suit the material. She gets viewers into her characters' emotional headspace in really interesting ways.

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Posted by Andrew

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