Zero Dark Thirty
Uncomfortable Reality: Zero Dark Thirty has the potential to be great, but rips off the Bin Laden bandage too soon.
Thursday, January 10, 2013
Too soon? Too soon for a kickass political action movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden? It’s been less than two years since a black-ops team of elite American soldiers executed the purported mastermind of 9/11 – without any sort of due process – on the sovereign soil of another nation. Or maybe it’s not too soon, because while there were some twitters of discontent back in the spring of 2011 about how extralegal the whole shebang was, hardly anyone today seems to be the least bit perturbed by any of it. Go America!
Could be I’m trending a tad toward the unfair to Zero Dark Thirty for being more nuanced than the American public personality tends to be. But the absence of even the smallest, most tepid sort of criticism about all the Not Very Nice things America did along the way to killing Bin Laden, right up to killing him the way it did, bothers the law-abiding moralist in me. I don’t need a moralistic movie per se. But I might have liked just the briefest line of dialogue here in which someone – anyone – questions the right of the United States to infiltrate an ally nation such as Pakistan on nothing more than our own ballsy say-so. I might have liked just the quickest hint of an appreciation for the fact that it’s precisely the sort of disregard for the rule of international law or human rights that makes so many people around the world angry at the U.S.
Yeah yeah yeah: Bin Laden – or whoever was behind 9/11 – had no regard for the rule of international law or human rights either. But he was the bad guy, right? We’re supposed to be the good guys, aren’t we?
If only this were a wholly fictional story, with none of the baggage of real life weighing it down, I could probably get behind it 100 percent, instead of the merely 95 percent I can give. Because director Kathryn Bigelow, reuniting with her Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal, has created an awesomely engaging investigative procedural featuring perhaps the most fearsome female protagonist ever. Jessica Chastain is immensely tough and gratifying and uncomfortable and astonishing as Maya, a CIA operative who is as intelligent, as driven, as aggressive, as singleminded as any man is ever allowed to be in The Movies, and with no subsequent Hollywood-style punishment for it. (She doesn’t break up with a boyfriend who accuses her of being more interested in Bin Laden than she is in him!) Well, yes, there is the suggestion that, in the end, the successful conclusion to her hunt for the world’s most wanted man – spoiler! she gets him! – is less than fully satisfying for her, but that’s fine. More than fine: It’s the best the film has to offer by way of saying that the cost of the hunt might have been more than it was worth.
It’s true, too, that the film is blunt about those costs without being exploitive about them. There are scenes of torture here, of an Al Qaeda detainee in a “black site” at an “undisclosed location,” that do not pretend that there is anything enjoyable about it for those dishing it out (including the spectacularly good Jason Clarke as a CIA colleague of Maya’s who makes sporadic appearances). Yet there is also the hint that, all evidence to the contrary aside – we know that torture is not an effective method of interrogation – torture produced actionable intelligence in the hunt for Bin Laden. There is implied criticism of President Obama’s public determination to end U.S. torture. And too little is made of the impact witnessing the torture has on Maya: While we see later that it gets easier for her to swallow her disgust, most of the emotional reality of being a human being participating in the unpleasant actions that were required – or at least depicted here as required – to find Bin Laden is avoided.
Still, there are movie-movie pleasures here, even if they sit alongside awkward realities. A visit to Area 51? Whoa. An appearance by Torchwood’s John Barrowman, even if it is only two lines in one scene? Cool. If only there were some love for that Pakistani guy on Twitter who inadvertently let that nighttime get-Bin Landen raid cat out of the bag…
Maybe Zero Dark Thirty is too soon. Too soon for us to look at this film as pure art, pure entertainment, as separate from its inevitable sociopolitical implications. But right now, this feels just a little bit more propagandistic – ain’t America awesome?! – than I’m completely comfortable with.
ZERO DARK THIRTY (2½) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. • Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty. • Rated R. • At Cannery Row XD, Century Cinemas Del Monte, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas, Lighthouse Cinemas.