Saturday, January 19, 2013

"Zero Dark Thirty" Is About Much More Than Torture


Zero Dark Thirty - Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Mark Boal, starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, and Mark Strong - Rated R

The killing of Osama bin Laden, or UBL, as he’s referred to in this film, captivated me much as it captivated most of the western world.  It was one of those strange moments in history when we found ourselves cheerful and exuberant because of a death. Okay, not just “a” death, but “the” death of the world’s most infamous terrorist. After the good feelings subsided, the questions began. How did they find him? Who shot him? Where’s the body? Are their pictures? Those types of questions can hold interesting answers, sure, but there are much more important questions, such as: Does this change anything? Was all the work and money spent really worth it? Had people died in vain during the long search? Zero Dark Thirty, the latest from director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), attempts to answer, and at least asks, most if not all of both types of questions.

Zero Dark Thirty handles the why and the how of the manhunt expertly. We’re given multiple examples of the terrorism that explain the need for UBL’s capture, most notably the sounds of 9/11 played over a black screen. Then we are presented with how information was procured not just for UBL’s capture, but also in the attempt to thwart any terrorism. This, of course, is where the film ventures into controversial territory because torture (depending on your definition of the word) was used in the early years of the war on terror. The debate is whether the film condones torture as an effective means of gaining intelligence. Some are using the film as evidence that, yes, torture brought us the information to get UBL. Is that true? Sort of. Certainly advances are made by the investigators in the film thanks to torture, but in no way is this film some ringing endorsement of the practice. If anything, the film makes it clear that torture messes people up on both sides of the situation. It also shows that information can be gained through nonviolent means, as well. Anyway, this film will only start an argument about torture; it won’t finish it.

Because of the torture elements, Zero Dark Thirty can be a difficult film to watch, but that’s the point. The main character, CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), appears to serve as a representative of the audience when we first see her. She is in the interrogation chamber, and she seems sickened by what she sees. Thankfully, Maya is not simply a personification of how the audience should feel because, once left alone with the detainee, she does not cry or turn into a sympathetic, helpful woman. Instead, she coldly lets the detainee know that they want information, and they are going to get it.
If Zero Dark Thirty is anything more than a procedural about the UBL manhunt, then it is a character portrait of Maya.  Perhaps Maya does not necessarily represent the audience so much as she is the personification of the war on terror.  Are terrible means justified by the ends?  Just how long can people keep fighting this war?  Maya has to go through all of that along with being faced with actual terrorism.  It is because of this focus, and Chastain’s amazing performance, that Zero Dark Thirty becomes much more than a docudrama.  Chastain is equal parts victim and perpetrator.  I don’t mean that legally speaking, but emotionally.  It’s a very hard balance to strike without seeming completely inconsistent, but Chastain is able to convey, believably, a character than can cry one moment and face down her boss or a detainee the next.
The rest of the cast is impressive, as well, if not for performances then for the sheer variety of it.  The standout, aside from Chastain, has to be Jason Clarke, as a slightly eccentric interrogator.  He brings some serious intensity to the role and a surprising amount of much needed comedic relief.  I’m not sure why he’s being left out of the previews so much because he carries a bit of the film’s weight.  The rest of the cast is great, but those two performances really stood out to me.
Watching the previews, one would assume that this film is largely about the raid on UBL’s compound.  This is misleading, just as the focus on Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt in the previews is misleading (they are minor characters in the overall film).  Zero Dark Thirty is a modern spy film in that the majority of it is about the inner politics of the CIA and how information is gathered, lost, painstakingly analyzed, ignored, etc.  It is interesting that James Bond is experiencing a resurgence the same year that this film is released because Maya represents a realistic Bond character in that she is not allowed to do all the things Bond can do even though her ultimate goal is similar to Bond’s in that she wants to stop the bad guy.  There is nothing glamorous about the work Maya does.  To be honest, most of it is boring.  The tediousness of the work explains the lengthy running time of the film (over two and a half hours).  This was not a simple task, and it was also bogged down in politics.  There’s no need to try and spice that up and lie about how things work in the modern spy world.  It may seem strange to praise a film for focusing on tedium, but I feel that it helps the audience identify with Maya’s struggle throughout. 
Perhaps tedious is not the best word because I truly found all of the film to be interesting.  It’s just that at some point, since we all know the ending, you start to think, “Okay, come on, we get it, move on.”  This is what Maya is thinking the entire time, as well, though, which is why it works. 
There are certain spy elements that may seem a bit boring as Maya goes through files and videos, but Zero Dark Thirty also features some extremely skillfully filmed action elements.  Director Kathryn Bigelow (who was inexplicably snubbed by the Academy) has done an amazing job of recreating events and filming them in a clear way that is easy to follow.  And while Zero Dark Thirty may not contain as many insanely tense moments as The Hurt Locker, it still surpasses that film in ambition and technique.  Bigelow is certainly experiencing the apex of her career right now.  Credit is due to screenwriter Mark Boal, too, as he has turned in an exhaustively researched script that never feels fake or too extensive. 
Overall, I am glad I held off from compiling my top ten list until I had seen this film because it will certainly be on it.  Zero Dark Thirty is an immensely effective, entertaining, and thought-provoking film that features a masterful leading performance.  It pretty much does everything that I think a movie should do, and it does it well.  Don’t look to Zero Dark Thirty to form your opinion on torture, look to it for a much larger picture of the war on terror and what it has all been about.  It won’t answer all of the questions for you, necessarily, but it will make you think, and that is much more effective.


  1. I've been exploring for a little bit for any high quality articles or weblog posts on this sort of space . Exploring in Yahoo I finally stumbled upon this web site. Studying this information So i am happy to convey that I have an incredibly just right uncanny feeling I came upon exactly what I needed. I such a lot without a doubt will make sure to do not fail to remember this web site and give it a glance regularly.
    Also visit my web blog ...

  2. First of all I would like to say awesome
    blog! I had a quick question in which I'd like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind prior to writing. I have had a difficult time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out. I truly do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or tips? Many thanks!

    my weblog -