Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

2012, 157 min. R – naked terrorists, torture, bloody violence, language, no sex.
IMDB says...A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May 2011.

The 73rd Virgin says...This starts very slowly with a black screen and lots of chatter from 911 calls that came in during the WTC attacks on 9/11. Thus the embargo against any images of 9/11 in popular media is enforced.

In the first few minutes there’s a huge dose of vernacular and name dropping of terrorists that might be vaguely familiar to us. This is mildly distracting but probably necessary to establish the obscurity of the work that our heroine, Maya, is engaged in. The first 30 minutes, at least, is basically one long interrogation scene allowing Maya to show her discomfort with the water boarding and other physical abuse.  But these scenes never really take a position on whether torture is appropriate or not. If I’m supposed to be outraged – well – whoops.

Jessica Chastain is fine as Maya. She is de-glamorized and wears almost no makeup to go with her sensible black pantsuits. She appears to be deliberately underplaying the part to show a person with little emotional involvement outside of the work itself. Jennifer Ehle really has the better part as the marginal friend and mentor Jessica, who shares Maya’s bin Laden obsession, but she has a better sense of humor about it. Their scenes together are believable and Ehle’s wise-cracking enthusiasm kinda steals the show. I’m an unabashed fan.

The ubiquitous Mark Strong appears as some sort of CIA higher-up. This time he has an American accent and plenty of hair and storms around a conference room like Bobby Knight screaming at his players. Let’s face it; it’s only a matter of time before he shows up with his head shaved on Game Of Thrones. Stephen Dillane is already on GOT and shows up here as “National Security Advisor”. Finally, James Gandolfini does an acceptable Leon Panetta. Otherwise the cast is relatively unknown. Strong has almost the only particularly funny line when White House officials suggest that perhaps the bin Laden stronghold is that of a drug dealer. He responds, “perhaps he’s the only successful drug dealer in history to never actually sell drugs.”

There is a believable distance between the CIA operatives and their perceived failures. They carry the weight of failure whenever they watch clips of successful terrorist attacks but they don’t dwell on it, especially Jessica.  When others get upset about the Khobar Towers attacks, she doesn’t miss a beat in saying something like, “the Saudis will take care of it”. She gives off a certain confidence and good humor that has its own negative consequence but seems believable in character.

As slow as the intro seems, the movie has a tonal progression that gradually ramps up the tension even before the final assault on the bin Laden compound, and maintains it even though we know how it all ends. Director Bigelow only borrows a few methods from The Hurt Locker; especially near the end as concerned local Pakistanis begin to descend on the US forces. But it doesn’t have near the oppressive paranoia of that movie.

I don’t know that I’ve seen enough of Bigelow’s movies to recognize a particular style. She has a fondness for night and dust dating back to Near Dark, but otherwise she admirably disappears into the story with very few flourishes to call attention to herself.

I’m struck by how the S.E.A.L. Team is deliberately made up of heavyset, bearded, slightly grizzled actors. I have no idea if this is accurate but it feels right. At one time they may have been the flower of America’s youth but these guys appear to be late 20s early 30s and comfortable in their aging and highly experienced skin.

I have not closely followed the controversy about how much access the production and the filmmakers had to classified documents or insider information about the raid itself. Not surprisingly, for every claim that they had unusual and/or inappropriate access, there’s a separate claim that they were duped by the very people whose story they were trying to tell. Obviously there are composite characters, especially Dan the chief torturer, who burns out and goes back to Washington after seeing “too many naked guys”. But there is a strong link back to real persons as we get nearer to the conclusion. Terrorist groups’ early successes such as Khobar Towers or the London Underground bombings seem a long time ago to this casual observer. But the final attack on a CIA installation in Afghanistan was only four years ago and still rings true and is quite painful to watch.

While I was prepared for the explosions and sudden violence that Bigelow’s always been so good at, I was somewhat unprepared for the casual killing of marginally innocent females surrounding the simians that are Al Qaeda. Not that I’m the least bit disturbed, I’m just a little surprised at how it’s presented. It seems any adult who is worth killing always gets one extra shot right to the heart just to be sure.

The music meanders along slowly building tension until of course the final scenes, which are done in silence. The nighttime raid is a perfect balance of lighting to allow the audience to see what’s going on, versus communicating the feel of uncertainty and confusion as the attack progresses. I found myself reflexively looking away every time someone set a charge on a locked door as if I was the one wearing nighttime vision goggles. It is quietly masterful. Even the stealth helicopters purr like lions and the automatic rifles like housecats.

I admit to being somewhat less attuned to the politics of almost any movie than most of my conservative brethren. There is one scene where action stops and we are called upon to genuflect to a television screen with Barack Obama proclaiming America doesn’t torture. Well, I suspect we still do. We still do virtually everything else the Bush administration did, but nobody seems upset anymore. But those on the left who feel that this movie glorifies torture may have a point. To me it feels non-judgemental in how it portrays the process of torture, especially as practiced by Dan, in that there isn’t any time set aside for him to engage in handwringing. He goes back to DC but there is no notion of regret and no notion that it doesn’t work. The story allows our heroine to never actually participate in torture; only to observe it and then glean the benefits.

Maybe the whole point is to leave me quietly impressed by our heroes or functionaries in the GWOT, and to that extent it’s a rousing success. The workmanlike approach of the CIA operatives as well as the S.E.A.L. Team seemed convincing to one who can never really know, but somehow this manages to maintain the dramatic tension even in a story of dogged dot-connecting followed by ice-cold killing.

The great Richard Fernandez, Marcos-era Phillipine dissident turned conservative columnist, provides the most useful discussion of torture I've ever read. "When I ran safehouses in the anti-Marcos days the first order of business whenever a cell member was captured by the police was to alert the surviving members, move the safehouse and destroy all links to the captured person. That’s because everyone knew that there was a great probability that the captive would talk under duress, however great his bravery and resistance. Nobody I know, or have heard of who has had experience in real-life situations has ever said, “our cell should continue as usual and the safehouse should remain open, despite the fact that one of our own is being tortured by the secret police, because I read in the New York Times that coercion never works."

And, "I find it curious that a society which thinks that the CIA’s destruction of the video record of the water boarding sessions is immoral can simultaneously maintain that showing the video of Daniel Pearl being beheaded is inflammatory or inappropriate. Let’s see it all. They are two sides of the same coin."

And the not very good preview...Why they didn't play up the relationship between the two lead actresses in order to get one or two female butts in the seats is beyond me. Stupid.


  1. I left a comment yesterday, but i must have forgotten to press publish or something. Mind like a steel sieve.
    Anyway, i had no interest in this movie until I read your review. Jennifer Ehle? I'm there. The other Liz Bennets cringe in her shadow IMO

  2. Yeah, she is for the ages. I hope I didn't oversell the size of her role in zd30, but it's the most I've seen of her in years. Great in Contagion too.