Zero Dark Thirty

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Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal offer up a workmanlike blow-by-blow of the CIA’s efforts to hunt down Osama bin Laden following the September 11th attacks. Purely as cinematic exercise, Zero Dark Thirty is an exhilarating piece of work. But, beyond its for-the-times subject matter, the work does not linger whatsoever. Except for Bigelow’s masterful calibration of suspense throughout, her film has almost no point of view, no thematic underpinnings, and not a single character worth remembering.

Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA operative who becomes obsessed with tracking down bin Landen–the mastermind behind the worst terrorist attack on American soil. Because Bigelow, Boal and Chastain present Maya as essentially a cipher–an absolute blank, a young woman with a shady past, a murky inner life, and absolutely zero human connections (familial, romantic or otherwise)–they risk giving us a two-dimensional protagonist whose zeal to see her goal through must suffice in sustaining our rooting interest. Inasfar as Chastain’s character is concerned, we find a potentially interesting and headstrong individual with nothing for the audience to really cling to. She’s not as obnoxious as Claire Danes as the pathological human train-wreck Carrie in television’s Homeland, but she’s not far behind. Maya’s triumph at the end of Zero Dark Thirty is exactly what Bigelow intends–a Pyrrhic victory, an empty and meaningless futility in the endless fight-fire-with-fire crusade against al-Qaeda–but, because we don’t actually care about Maya, we don’t sympathize with that realization (or perhaps lack thereof). Rather, we just sink back in our seat, exhausted, our nerves strained from the anxiety that Bigelow’s razor-sharp technique manages to conjure up in her viewers. Other than that, we wonder for what purpose, other than as a suspenseful journalistic chronology of well-known events, the film exists.

Zero Dark Thirty is a draining and brutal experience emotionally. The acting is generally solid; the performances are as restrained and unrevealing as the screenplay. And much has been made of the film’s frank depiction of torture as an occupational moral hazard in America’s great fight. Bigelow takes no stance vis-a-vis torture. Representation is not an endorsement, she has said, and she is right. Her aim here is to present the events as they happened. But because the characters are all battle-hardened and morally weary, they aren’t our best guides through this terrain. Zero Dark Thirty is packed wall-to-wall with humans in peril, whether it’s the prisoners at the interrogation sites or the Special Forces soldiers on their fateful mission at film’s end. In terms of individual sequences–the helter-skelter hunt to intercept a cell phone caller in a crowded city market, for instance, or the climactic raid on bin Laden’s compound–there are several in the film that could be used as examples of how to modulate a suspense scene in any cinema class.

Bigelow actually pulls off quite a feat because the events she depicts have all already happened, the outcome of this story is already familiar to all of us, and yet her mastery of the craft still plays us all like a piano. In that sense, her film resembles Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) with the key difference being that, in the latter, the characters all feel like fully rounded, lived-in human characters rather than connect-the-dots archetypes. Zero Dark Thirty is an expertly made, 157-minute torture mechanism with no real payoff. That’s ultimately the point, I suppose, because there is no payoff in this War on Terror. Everything is relative–how one defines torture, how one defines victory, etc. But, on a strictly old-fashioned narrative level, Bigelow can’t pull back enough from her boiler-room atmosphere of tense meetings, interrogations, fire fights, and terror attacks to give us a truly human chronicle of this latest chapter in our messy geopolitical history.

Grade: B

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Reda Kateb, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau

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