January 12, 2013 by abbyo
“Zero Dark Thirty” is a movie that was never going to please everyone. It’s a film about a very sensitive topic that involves a score of emotionally and politically-charged subjects. Even in the film’s pre-production, when Osama Bin Laden hadn’t yet been found, and “Zero Dark Thirty” was an untitled tale of obsession and searching for an unfindable target, there was nervous speculation. And now that the movie’s out, people still can’t seem to make up their minds. Does “Zero Dark Thirty” endorse or condemn the use of torture? Does it put the methods used in the hunt for Bin Laden—even the famous Navy SEAL raid itself—in a positive light?
The fact is, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s movie doesn’t fall decisively on either side of the equation, a smart move that shows a maturity rare in Hollywood these days, or, for that matter, our current political climate. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a very straightforward, realistic depiction of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden that neither glorifies nor condemns. It’s a movie about the quest for revenge, and the dark road that quest leads people down.
The film opens with audio from September 11, specifically a 911 call from a woman in one of the World Trade Center towers. It’s a dark moment, and a bold choice on Bigelow’s part, but it sets that tone of revenge, and serves as the film’s foundation in reality. We’re then introduced, two years later, to CIA operative Jessica Chastain, in the middle of her first day on the job in Pakistan, watching colleague Jason Clarke waterboard a detainee. Chastain spends the next decade encountering dead-end leads, close calls, personal danger and loss in her obsessive search for Bin Laden, even telling another character at one point that she feels the only reason she’s still alive is so she can “finish the job.”
But it’s a testament to the movie, and an accurate point that the eventual discovery and killing of Bin Laden is entirely free from catharsis. There’s no triumphant “We got him!” scene, no jumping up and down for joy. There are just the shocked faces of the SEAL team (led, weirdly enough, by Chris Pratt of “Parks and Recreation”) and Chastain crying and looking stunned as she boards a plane leaving Pakistan. The raid itself is a legitimately frightening set piece, and the act of killing Bin Laden sudden and almost anticlimactic.
The torture scenes, too, are entirely free from glorification. They’re presented in a matter-of-fact way, because, like it or not, it happened. It’s also worth noting that the information gained in the film from interrogation and torture isn’t the information that ultimately leads to the payoff. That stuff comes from relentless, patient detective work at the hands of Chastain and her colleagues.
Of course, all of the political posturing and whining surrounding the movie, particularly its Best Picture nomination, completely ignores the acting (which is very good), the writing (which is thoughtful, smart, and even entertaining when it needs to be) and the technical aspects of the filmmaking, which are also quality. It seems that people have jumped at the chance to condemn a movie simply because it doesn’t pander to the audience, which is extremely disappointing. People who think “Zero Dark Thirty” is a patriotic ode that endorses torture and revenge are completely missing the point of the film: that killing Bin Laden could never erase the grief and pain he caused.
Note: Scott Mendelson has a very well-written post regarding “Zero Dark Thirty” and the Oscars. You can read it here.