Zero Dark Thirty took a lot of criticism before it opened. Now that it’s been released, a lot of that can be safely discarded.
Those on the right insisted that the film was nothing more than propaganda that Obama would use to secure his re-election. That is not true; Obama is barely shown in the film at all and I don’t recall ever hearing his name spoken in the film. The film even (faintly) finds some morality in Bush. One CIA agent proclaims that “there was far better intel” about WMDs in Iraq than there was about bin Laden’s location at his compound in Pakistan – not exactly praise for the Obama era intelligence community.
Those on the left complained that the film glorified torture and drone attacks. That is not true either. Deflecting drone criticism is easy – the devices and attacks are not shown, and the only time they are mentioned is in relation to CIA field director Joseph Brady being forced to leave Pakistan amidst calls for his head on a platter. And torture is depicted, but is certainly not glamorized. I’ll get into that later, but I can say that it is not depicted as yielding particularly useful results. To compare, the information the characters get from waterboarding is the equivalent of someone saying “she has dark hair” when being asked to describe the Mona Lisa. It’s true, but certainly not even close to answering the question.
It’s the third group of people that I want to address. Many groups have proclaimed Zero Dark Thirty to be the best film of 2012, and that Kathryn Bigelow has crafted another masterpiece.
But that…despite masterful directing technique, a strong performance by Jessica Chastain as Maya, a creative structure that makes the piece feel like a documentary, and a third act that may count as the best action picture of 2012…is also not true. The film is good and should be seen by anyone who has even a faint interest in watching it. But I specifically apologized in my “Best of 2012” list that I did not include Zero Dark Thirty. No apology was necessary.
What was missing from Zero Dark Thirty was any feeling behind the manhunt for bin Laden. What does Bigelow think about the increased security state that we currently live in as a response to bin Laden’s and al Qaeda? And what about bin Laden? Why did he do what he do? What was being discussed in his final days? Did he ever have a moment of clarity, or was he still convinced that he was posed to destroy the U.S. and was still planning even worse attacks that would have lead to the deaths of many innocent people?
I have no idea. And I think that these are valid questions that Bigelow should have explored, especially considering how important her subject matter is to many people.
In terms of any opinion about the operation, what it basically boils down to is Maya’s obsession with the case. She is convinced that she knows the key to finding bin Laden, and takes years (the film starts in 2003) convincing the agency that her hunches are the right ones. Along the way, we see some of the famous terrorist acts of the last decade (including the London bus bombing, the Islamabad Marriott hotel bombing, and the attempted Times Square bombing) that help increase Maya’s sense of urgency. If anyone comes out of the film as a complete character, it’s her. Chastain deserves her Oscar nomination, and as a political thriller, the film works. At least, it does manage to educate people about the intelligence behind the raid, and why it took so long to find bin Laden.
The film also does want to explore the morality of torture. Many of the characters who conduct in it have scenes in which they sincerely regret it. Obama’s one scene comes from an interview when he condemns it. And, as I stated earlier, it does not reveal useful information. Obviously, Bigelow had something to say about torture, in a way that has allowed people to analyze it for themselves.
And that third act of the actual raid (which was the primary interest to people who are watching the film) is incredible. Yes, we know how it ends – bin Laden will die. But Bigelow still creates a level of tension and fear in the sequence. No one knew what to expect in the compound. The shaky cam, the explosions, and the performances of the team members make it all seem very authentic.
That realism is a great first step but what does it ultimately mean? Films are not reality. That is why documentaries exist. They are meant to be about feelings, emotions, and interpretations. Ultimately, I didn’t get that sense of that in many sequences. Even the raid is lacking emotion. Only the final shot of the film shows any of that – with Maya slowly crying, realizing her life’s work has been completed. But it feels too little, to late.
I still greatly enjoyed Zero Dark Thirty, but I am also disappointed in it. It was supposed to be the most important film of 2012 and it falls short of that goal. It does so much right that I am wondering why Bigelow did not feel the need to address the technique. The whole film reminds me of the story of the child piano prodigy playing for a master composer. After the kid has finished playing a complex Chopin piece, the composer states that “you know the notes. Someday, you will know the music.” Bigelow plays the notes brilliantly in Zero Dark Thirty. But she completely ignored the music.