Getting Back To Movies You *Can* See … Here’s Our Take on ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Alex: Meh.

I mean, really, that’s pretty much what I have to say. Meh.

Okay, the raid on the bin Laden compound is “wiveting,” as Babwa Wawa used to say, but the rest of Zero Dark Thirty — which begins just after the 9/11 attacks and chronicles the bin Laden manhunt, as led by one intensely focused C.I.A. agent — doesn’t have much to say about the events it’s depicting. I guess critics and moviegoers and politicians are debating whether the movie “endorses” torture, but I think ZD30 takes no stance at all. And not in some sort of fair and even-handed way, but at a weird laconic remove. One can find in it a pro-torture message and an anti-torture message, but it isn’t because there’s a whole, total portrait. It’s because there’s a lack of one.

Is this the job of a movie like this? To participate in the torture debate? And/or to critique our intelligence and counterterrorism systems? What is this movie? It belongs to the class of nonfiction re-creations that includes The Social Network and All the President’s Men — movies that depict stuff that just happened, like, five minutes ago. But those movies succeed in showing us how everything went down, whereas ZD30 doesn’t illuminate much for us.

Except the existence and dedication of its main character. Our heroine is played by the future Mrs. Aaron Rich, a.k.a. Jessica Chastain, and according to the movie’s version of events she was the detective hero whose hunches were always right, however far-fetched they seemed. (Man, am I sick of seeing cop/spy heroes doubted by their bellicose superiors at every single turn. “You don’t have a shred of evidence” is one of those lines of movie dialogue that ought to be banned forever, along with, “Let me get this straight,” and “Clever girl.”)

And that’s really my objection to the movie. We’re so with her, we’re so sure she’s right — especially because we know the outcome! — that we’re satisfied to see her redeemed and validated. It validates us. It’s really a classic — and hackneyed — Hollywood equation masked by Kathryn Bigelow’s good taste and silken filmmaking.


Well, to throw in another phrase that should be banned, “Alex, when you’re right, you’re right.” There’s nothing really bad about ZD30 (a title that is never explained, though I think it has to do with the time Seal Team Six (who are curiously never referred to by that name) leave to go kill OBL, though that’s merely conjecture… and I don’t know where to find dark o’clock on my watch), but there’s nothing wonderful about it either. It’s basically the longest movie you’ve ever seen in your life and one of the most shapeless. You know how 2001: A Space Odyssey is a wonderful film that is perfectly formed, has several distinct chapters and evolves beautifully over the course of the history of humanoid existence on Earth and beyond? Right—this film does nothing like that.

The narrative basically follows the Chastain character, Maya (who has no last name, even though she really does exist and did do what she apparently did in the film… I know this because I saw a picture of her on 60 Minutes one night before I ate supper), as she’s obsessed with OBL and is never wrong about him, as you point out, Alex, although we never really learn anything about her. And then there are a bunch of weird and sloppy psychological or intimate moments where Maya’s veil falls for a moment: at one point she says something about how she was recruited by the CIA out of high school (Oh, really? Tell us more about that! That sounds interesting!); later, after she confirms the corpse they have is indeed OBL, in the most embarrassing scene in the film, she begins to weep as she realizes her live as she has known it is over.

But we don’t know who Maya is or why we should care about her. You can’t just put a melodramatic hat on top of a sober manhunt. Not only is it pointless, facile sentimentality, but I don’t know how to react to it, because suddenly it’s a different movie from the one I’ve been watching, where Chastain was cocksure, even without “a shred of evidence.”

This leads to my biggest gripe about the film and the script by Mark Boal (and direction by Bigelow) which is that the film seems to constantly criticize the chauvinism of the CIA and the military, but time and time again Maya is no angel, deserving the condescension from her (male) coworkers, and they constantly throw her into cheap stereotypes of “week sisters in war” (like her crying at the end of the film, or crying when her non-friend colleague, Jennifer Ehle, dies (a character so underwritten, it seems she is only in the picture to die in order to show Chastain crying and feeling sad another time—no men cry in the film, by the way)).

There are several throw-away lines about how she’s a “clever girl” and chauvinistic remarks about her not having the temperament for the work. The problem is that Maya is a complete asshole and a horrible person to work around, regardless of her gender. Yes—asshole dudes say shity things about her, but it’s hard to feel sympathy for her gender situation when she behaves like a dick throughout. In other words, Boal and Bigelow bury a light gender criticism in a film about someone who should be criticized. (I just want to be clear that I would be happy to accept Chastain as my wife… though I’m now convinced she can’t act and that her best roles are the silent ones (Tree of Life)).

You’re absolutely right, Alex, that ZD30 doesn’t illuminate much of anything, aside from the fact that one random woman had a weird hunch, that nobody believed in, that ended up working out. I would ask, if that’s the case, why did we need to see it over almost 3 hours of our lives? Why not cut it significantly… or at least try to give it some more shape as it moved along. There are a bunch of inter-titles throughout (phrases like “Human Error” and “The Canaries”), used to suggest “chapters” of the story… but they seem to only relate to the first few scenes of a section rather that the whole section. Forty-five minutes after each title, you forget what title-area you’re in… because there is just so much stuff packed in to each part.

Also, doens’t the use of inter-titles suggest that you could make the script really clinical and step-by-stepy—like Kurosawa’s High and Low? That’s probably the most efficient man-hunt movie in history, there are well-defined sections and no waste. Here there is lots and lots of waste, dressed up as “texture,” that really only just adds minutes to the total run time.

One last point is that I have to mention that Aussie actor Jason Clarke, who plays Dan, the torturer colleague, gives easily the best performance of the film. At times he’s violent and cruel, at other moments he’s jovial and mercurial, almost reminiscent of Dean Martin in some of his best roles in Rio Bravo and Some Came Running. I was really upset when he leaves the film around the end of the first act to return to Washington (or Langley, in contemporary parlance… sigh), because at that point there ceased to be anything or anyone to give a shit about for the remaining 2 hours of the film.

All of that being said, ZD30 is not a bad movie—it’s just bearish and lumbering and hard to get your arms around (I dunno, some dudes like that, I guess). I like lots of moments of it—yes, Alex, the OBL strike at the end is done beautifully—but it just seems like it desperately needs a haircut and a shower before it puts on its tux. I don’t know where that analogy just went. Apologies.

Alex: Agree totally that Jason Clarke is great and I missed him after he decamped for “Langley.”

This movie makes for such a weird (sadistic?) viewing experience because we know we’re building to the raid on the bin Laden compound, and we know it’s going to be tense, and we know how it’s going to end. And as we watch each plot point of the manhunt we mentally hold it up next to the climax/resolution of the story (which we all know) and draw a connection. It would be like going to see The Empire Strikes Back knowing all along that Darth is Luke’s father, and that changes the way you watch the movie. You start looking for clues and connections and you’re looking at it more analytically. It’s more Columbo than Poirot — not “who did it?” but “how will the detective find the guy we saw do it?”

Something about that makes me uneasy. It creates a cathartic effect, and I’m basically anti-catharsis (except for Ordinary People).

Aaron, I like how much use you’ve been making lately of italics. Your writing is starting to look more and more like David Mamet dialogue. For some reason this pleases me.


About Aaron & Alex

We're two highly opinionated, movie-going, liberal, cynical, (single) New York Jews who like to bitch about movies.
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