Zero Dark Thirty
Gripping drama targets the gritty details of warmaking
Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Katheryn Bigelow
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton
The debate still rages whether we, as a nation, are ready for this story. The events of 9/11 and the consequent War on Terror are still a raw nerve for many. Members of Congress have even weighed in, alternately dubbing Bigelow’s film a liberal attempt to get Barack Obama reelected, a major violation of national security for its improper access to classified materials and a blatant fabrication since no American intelligence was ever gathered using torture. (Really? So why did we spend all those years discussing extraordinary rendition, waterboarding and Lyndie England?)
Wherever the “truth” lies, it’s hard to accuse Bigelow’s scary-intense end result of any political or philosophical bias. In fact, I don’t believe the words “Bush “ or “Obama” are ever spoken aloud. Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a gung-ho, guns-a-blazin’ war movie about who shot whom. It’s more a methodical examination of the patient, painstaking job of intelligence gathering. It may not be what we were expecting, but it’s definitely what we deserve.
Funny thing is, we know how this ends: a bravura, real-time recreation of the Navy SEAL Team 6 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. The inevitability of the story doesn’t lesson its impact any. Zero Dark Thirty plays out like a gritty “undercover cops vs. the Mafia” drama from the ’70s. It’s got the dark tension. It’s got the unvarnished realism. It’s got the subcultural, slang-filled dialogue. It’s got the tarnished “good guys” battling the committed “bad guys” scenario. But this thriller takes that claustrophobic, New York crime film atmosphere and expands it outward to fill a modern, global setting.
Admittedly, it takes a little while to get into this film’s measured pace and fly-on-the-wall dialogue. It starts out with some extremely blunt portrayals of torture. The inclusion is off-putting, but Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who worked together on The Hurt Locker) offer no clear commentary on the material. It’s impossible to tell if this film finds torture a necessary evil, a useful tool or a national embarrassment. In this case, it’s simply a fact.
As the story elements accrue, so does the overall tension. Boal’s script doesn’t spare a lot of time for storytelling niceties. In other words, we don’t get much background on our main character. We don’t see her lounging around at home, or flashing back to her troubled childhood or engaging in an unlikely romance with a newspaper reporter. All we know is that this lady is tenacious. And right.
With its careful avoidance of moralizing, politicizing and editorializing, Zero Dark Thirty functions almost as a work of reportage. It’s not your standard, disposable slice of Hollywood entertainment. Instead, it boldly, beautifully and unexpectedly crystalizes a complex story, leaving viewers to sort out the moral repercussions in their own mind. Good luck with that, America.