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Zero Dark Thirty – Resolution
It’s fun to follow the career of a director; take my recent reviews on Quentin Tarantino as an example. Take a director like Kathryn Bigelow. If you look at her career you can say she’s done it all. Horror movies (Near Dark), crime films (Point Break), neo-futuristic noir (Strange Days) and war (The Hurt Locker). You can honestly say she’s grown-up from genre films to Academy Award-winning fare, and of course it doesn’t hurt that at one point you were banging James Cameron, but I digress, as I do so often.
I remember the day 9/11 happened; I was a senior in high school sitting, or probably sleeping, in AP Psychology class. We had someone run into our classroom and tell our teacher to turn on the TV. The next thing I see is one of the World Trade Center towers on fire. It was a little perplexing and it almost seemed like a prank, albeit an extremely odd prank. Next thing I know a plane runs into the 2nd tower, and shortly after the first tower succumbs to the fire and collapses. This was my “JFK” moment. If you were alive when John F. Kennedy was assassinated you remember where you were at that moment, the same goes for the generation that saw the Twin Towers fall and coat Lower Manhattan in a cloud of dust. A surreal moment in World History. The following 10 years we were haunted by the al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, who orchestrated many terror attacks that cost the lives of thousands of people around the world. It wasn’t until May of 2011 that another moment occurred that you may remember; Barack Obama would appear on TV and tell the world that bin Laden had been killed in a compound in Pakistan. I personally felt relatively unchanged. Sure, a terrorist leader was dead, but did it make us that much safer? That is a question you have to ask yourself when you finish watching “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Bigelow has cornered the market on dramas that include both the Middle East and our never ending “War on Terror.” Despite some shortcomings, “The Hurt Locker” was a well done film centering on a bomb disposal team and the stress of the job. “Zero Dark Thirty” lacks the action, and luster, of “Locker” and focuses on the daily grind of select CIA officials as they cut through government red tape, and personal tragedies, to finally target, and eliminate, bin Laden. If you’ve watched the trailers and expect a slam-bang, balls-to-the-wall action thriller, you’re watching the wrong film. This film is a grind, but there is resolution.
“Thirty” follows CIA operative Maya who has just been sent to Pakistan to oversee the CIA’s Detainee Program a few years after 9/11. Told through a series of vignettes, the film navigates through many of the tragic events that lead to the eventual whereabouts of Usama bin Laden from the London bombings in 2005 to the bombing of the Marriott in Islamabad. The movie isn’t as much of a mystery as it is a procedural, similar to something that you might see on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” The one difference is that you see the toll a grueling manhunt can take on the human psyche and how the government can be a hindrance when it comes to completing a mission.
People are complaining about two things in this film; the torture scenes and how information was gained for the making of the film. Look, every country that has been involved in some sort of war theater over the past 100 years has probably been involved in some type of interrogation efforts that weren’t in the Geneva Conventions. It’s not just America to blame for abuse of these Conventions, and I don’t think “Thirty” took it too far, they just called it like it is. I’m sure there have been grave abuses during our “War on Terror” but to play Devil’s Advocate, the “War on Terror” isn’t really a war, it’s more of a mantra. We have not declared war in this country since 1942 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered World War II. Is this an excuse for torture, of course not, but we can’t get upset when we know practices such as waterboarding have been used on terror suspects and detainees. As far as classified information obtained by the makers of the film, I’ll just leave it at that, I don’t need anyone knocking on my door after reading this.
What bothered me about “Thirty,” weren’t the torture scenes or acts of violence carried out by the terrorists, it was the relative lack of character development. We gain from the film the fact that Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, has been on the hunt for bin Laden since she left high school and it’s the only thing that she has worked on while with the CIA. We know it’s personal, to a degree, and that her obsession has led to her leaving a daughter and possibly an entire family, or maybe even losing a family member during 9/11. As she comes to the end of her search we see her first real emotion, as she cries. Her tears can mean many things; the fact that bin Laden has finally been killed, the fact she is finally going home, or just maybe the fact that her search is over and she is left with nothing, and nobody will know her sacrifice. She has to go back into a world that will never know her work, and she has nothing left to work for. Her life came down to one man, who is now gone. It’s deep stuff, if you take the time to look at it from all perspectives.
Aside from the character development, “Zero Dark Thirty” is an epic retelling of the 10 years after 9/11 and the eventual killing of Usama bin Laden, the boogeyman who had been haunting the lives of Americans since that fateful day in September. Has Bigelow done it again, and will she capture Oscar gold again? Only time will tell.
Fun Fact: SEAL Team Six, a branch of the US Navy, carried out Operation Neptune Spear, the operation which eliminated their target, Usama bin Laden, in May 2011.
Zero Dark Thirty is not just a film. To me, it is a bookend to one of the greatest American tragedies in history. It serves as our first real glimpse into the events leading up to May 2, 2011. Some may argue that Zero Dark Thirty, as a film, is overrated. Some may argue that Zero Dark Thirty, as a historical chronicle, is inaccurate. However, you would be hard pressed to say that Zero Dark Thirty is not IMPORTANT.
Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatic account of the decade long search and capture of Osama bin Laden. A subject that IMPORTANT was a cinch to rile up a debate on how to properly portray it. Some might expect a kick-ass, romanticized war epic leading to a balls to the wall Seal assault on that compound in Abbottabad. Thirty isn’t that type of film at all. It is about the slow, grueling process government officials had to go through in order to finally pull the trigger on bin Laden. It isn’t romantic or fun. It isn’t fast paced or action packed. And as recent criticisms have suggested, it is controversially disturbing right from the beginning. But that is the film’s point. The steps our government and military take to accomplish their goals are almost unfathomable for a regular person. Especially when you account for the small amount of fanfare or celebration they enjoy when a mission is actually accomplished. The nuances of governmental decision making, puzzle solving, tactical strategies, and yes, torture, are the compelling pieces to this compelling film.
The moment I heard the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death, I knew a film about it had to be made. And as more of the details about the mission’s circumstances surfaced, I knew how great of a film it could be. My mind immediately went to hoping Kathryn Bigelow would helm it. Bigelow had already made and been honored for her stellar film The Hurt Locker. As chance had it, she was already developing a film about the search for bin Laden before he was killed. And after watching Zero Dark Thirty, I can’t think of anyone who could have handled this film better. Bigelow just knows how to shoot this material. Much like the way Scorsese knows how to shoot gangster films or Tim Burton knows how to shoot…um…weird films. She immerses the audience in this world and doesn’t give them room to flinch. Every scene, every interaction between characters feels like she’s pulled the covers off of something we shouldn’t be allowed to watch. The fact that she has already won an Oscar for directing the similarly styled Hurt Locker is the ONLY REASON she isn’t a frontrunner again for Zero Dark Thirty.
Jessica Chastain is a revelation in this film. Especially for me. I had only recently been familiar with her work in Lawless and The Help. However, my unpreparedness worked well for loving the main character of Maya. She is a stone cold, no nonsense, sh*t kicker that takes everyone by surprise from start to finish. It is so hard to portray that type of woman in a film and not come off as wooden or boring. See January Jones for further evidence. Despite Chastain’s cold demeanor, however, you can tell that there is still an angry, emotional wreck underneath. Chastain allows it to peak out at just the right moments. Even with a cast of constantly solid actors like Mark Strong, Jason Clarke, James Gandolfini, and Chris Pratt, Chastain shines the brightest.
As the award season approaches, Zero Dark Thirty is starting to pull away as a favorite in many categories. Despite my praise, I don’t think it is the best picture of the year. This is only due to entertainment reasons. It isn’t paced or put together the way an audience might find traditionally appealing. Though, Zero Dark Thirty is undoubtedly a must watch. A film that we will look back on and debate for years as to whether it properly captured such an IMPORTANT time in our nation’s history. Watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.