Friday, March 15, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Of all the Oscar-nominated films of 2012, none was as controversial as Zero Dark Thirty.  There were a few different reasons for this (most of which boils down to election-year political babbling), but the element that received the most discussion --- intelligent or otherwise --- revolved around the film's portrayal of torture as an effective interrogation tactic.  I certainly will not be as eloquent as some of those articles, but I will try to address the issue in a small way.  First things first, though.  I went in to Zero Dark Thirty as the final film in a marathon of Best Picture nominees.  I had high hopes, even though I wasn't in love with Kathryn Bigelow's last film, The Hurt Locker.  I heard that this was a film that asked a lot of tough questions and did not give comforting answers.  America has been fighting its War on Terror for over a decade now, and we still haven't gotten a movie that (in my mind, anyway) makes an awesome statement about it.  It may be a lot to ask of a movie, but that was what I was hoping for with Zero Dark Thirty.

Zero Dark Thirty is the somewhat true-ish tale of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden (played by the always delightful Ryan Reynolds).  Maya () is a fresh CIA recruit in 2003, newly assigned to the task force that is trying to track down Bin Laden.  Right out of the gate, Maya is confronted with the harsh reality of torture.  One of her new coworkers, Dan (), spends a good amount of time at a Black Box site, interrogating detainees.  Dan and his subordinates threaten, badger, and offer the occasional kindness in their quest for information --- aaand they also torture the shit out of their prisoners, too.  Waterboarding, humiliation, sensory deprivation, and just general abuse are some of the more colorful ways Dan elicits information.
Above: Dan, scraping some "torture juice" off his shoes
While no one is willing to dish on Osama Bin Laden, Dan and Maya managed to trick one detainee into naming a courier that delivers messages to Bin Laden. In and of itself, that little morsel of information doesn't mean much, but over the next few years, Maya is able to piece together a small piece of the larger picture.  If she is correct, and this courier is trusted with an important job, then that means he actually meets with the elusive Osama Bin Laden.  If that is true, then all Maya needs to do is track down this courier (who she does not have a picture or real name of) to find Bin Laden.  It's as easy as combing through literally tons of intelligence reports for a single clue over an eight-year span, while negotiating changing political and professional priorities and surviving a terrorist bombing.
She went in a novice and left a female David Caruso.  YEAAAAHHHH!

If nothing else, does an excellent job subverting expectations with Zero Dark Thirty.  This is less of a war movie or a manhunt than it is a police procedural.  In that regard, it's a pretty solid one.  Jessica Chastain fills the role of the obsessive person who just knows that they're right capably, and Bigelow does a good job making her look like the most capable person in the room at any given time.  When it finally gets to be Zero Dark Fifteen-ish, Bigelow shifts gears and reminds audiences that she knows how to add tension to military scenes.
What I found most interesting about Bigelow's approach to the material was that it felt surprisingly light on judgement.  The torture scenes seemed to affect the characters just as much as suicide bombers, or the final assault on Bin Laden's complex.  This could easily have been a propaganda piece, like The Green Berets, but Zero Dark Thirty strove for a much more documentary feel.

As a movie that is, essentially, a procedural with documentary tones to it, Zero Dark Thirty is not a great spotlight for acting.  was pretty good as the emotional core of the film, but even her fairly rounded character exhibited frustration more than anything else.  She did morph into a convincingly bad-ass intelligence agent, but I felt that the personal investment of the character --- which was mind-numbingly large --- didn't translate into her performance. 
was impressive in a supporting role; the more I see of Clarke, the more I like him and truly believe that he's close to a breakout role.  He had one of the more despicable parts in the film, but he gave it some unexpected humanity, too.  Most of the rest of the film was filled with bit parts, and many of them were played by character actors.  Still, in the cast of thousands, there were some familiar faces.  On the political side of the plot, Kyle Chandler was (once again) a bureaucrat, Mark Strong was a sneakier type of bureaucrat, James Gandolfini was kind of a military bureaucrat, and John Barrowman essentially acted as Jessica Chastain's hype man with his sole line.  All of those are good actors, but only Mark Strong had an opportunity to show off any (which he did).  On Maya's team, Harold Perrineau made a very brief and very welcome appearance and Jennifer Ehle was pretty good as the intelligence character that always seemed to be wrong.  When the story turned to the military side of things, Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton were the face of the strike team.  Pratt was surprisingly engaging as a slight goofball, while Edgerton played his part more through glaring than with dialogue.
Their haircuts match their characters

Okay, I've covered the plot, the direction and the acting.  What about all that torture?  On the one hand, I can agree (to an extent) with the argument that acceptance can be construed as condoning.  I honestly don't get where people are coming from when they say that the overall message here is that torture was necessary to find Bin Laden.  At worst, this film takes an indifferent stance on the issue.  Of course, the message is not that torture did no good, either; information gleaned through torture did eventually lead to the film's climax, but the methods are not shown as heroic or even necessary evils.  As with so much of Zero Dark Thirty, it would be so much easier to derive meaning and intent if this film had given in to machismo or back-patting nationalism.  Instead, the audience is subjected to extended periods of unpleasantness as the detainees are tortured on-screen.  If there is a message in Zero Dark Thirty about torture, I would argue that it is closer to "torture sure is messed up, right?" than anything else.

I was not sure how I felt about Zero Dark Thirty when it ended.  It certainly did not live up to my expectations, but that is not a bad thing.  This was a substantially different film than I was expecting, and I respected the emotionally-neutral choice of tone.  I would have preferred something that asked questions instead of simply reported issues, but that would have fundamentally altered Bigelow's documentary-feel.  I wish it had felt more immediate, though.  I was so separated from the emotions of these characters that the exits of Kyle Chandler and Jennifer Ehle had no impact on me, much less anything that happened to Jessica Chastain.  Everything just felt too impersonal.  That can happen in procedural dramas, but the main character's charisma or brilliance helps keep things exciting as the audience is drip-fed clues.  Chastain was at her best in conference room scenes, convincing bureaucrats to believe her.
There was a shocking amount of whatever you want to call this
For Zero Dark Thirty to work as a procedural, her best scenes needed to be her putting the pieces of the puzzle together.  This is a movie that could have done more, but also could have been truly insufferable.  Instead, it landed somewhere in the middle for me.

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