Monday, January 28, 2013

Movie – Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

With the film Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow returns to the region of the world that got her an Oscar for The Hurt Locker.  This time instead of Iraq she is further east in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  And while more of this movie focuses on the search for Bin Laden, the last hour of the movie is dominated by the military assault on his headquarters that killed him and captured tons of information.  That is about as far as the comparisons go, though.  Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty is not as compelling as The Hurt Locker, but it is still a movie worth your time.

The movie is more than 2 ½ hours long and it breaks down into three sections.  The first hour is dominated by Jessica Chastain as CIA analyst Maya who is sent to Pakistan originally in a general role, but who quickly takes a leading role in the hunt for Bin Laden.  A more experienced agent already there conducts “enhanced interrogations” (aka tortures) of a prisoner who has information the CIA needs.  Maya, while not thrilled by it, never objects to it.  (I’ll address the controversy in a bit.)

Eventually Maya identifies a compound where she is sure Bin Laden is hiding.  She now cycles back to Washington and the next half hour is spent on the inner politics of convincing higher ups to take a chance on raiding the compound.  During this Chastain is just one of an ensemble and she is not given much more to do in this section of the movie than write on a window an ever increasing number of how many days have passed without a raid, and to make angry faces at her boss who cannot convince the higher ups to do the raid.

The final hour of the movie focuses on the preparation and assault on the compound by the military.  There are a lot of POV shots that make you feel like you are there.  It is by far the most compelling part of the film.  Unfortunately for Chastain, she is almost completely absent from this part of the movie.  In fact, her role seems almost shoehorned into this section in order to even keep the actress onscreen for as little as she is.  By the way, there is some shakycam in the film, but it is not the losing-your-lunch shakycam levels employed by Paul Greengrass and J.J. Abrams.

So, the torture scenes in this movie have ignited a lot of controversy.  As I understand it they tend to break down into one of two complaints: 1. Bigelow should not have included them in the movie because torture is wrong; and 2. By placing them in the movie Bigelow is endorsing torture.

My response to number 1 is:  It happened.  The point of this movie is to show the search for and assault on Bin Laden.  No one seems to be complaining about the kills that the assault team was shown making.  And no one seems to be complaining about the movie Django Unchained showing slavery in it.  I don’t have a problem with the torture scenes being included in the film.

My response to number 2 is: Are you serious?  Just because a director includes a scene in a film does not in any way mean that they are in favor of what is happening in the scene.  How many thousands of movies have shown people being killed?  Do you seriously think for a second that all those directors were saying they were in favor of murder?  Do you think director Quentin Tarantino is saying he is in favor of slavery because he showed it in his latest film?

Or, you could just believe Bigelow.  At the Golden Globes Tina Fey joked that in regards to torture she would take the word of a woman (Bigelow) who had been married to James Cameron for three years.  By the way, if you see a clip of this watch for Jessica Chastain’s she-did-NOT-just-say-that reaction.  It’s priceless.

I was not bothered by the torture scenes, but there were two other things in this film that did bother me.  First, it opens with just a black screen and audio from 9/11, both people on the aircraft calling their loved ones and people trapped in the burning buildings calling for help.  I hope to God that these were actor portrayals and not real audio from that day.  If it is real, and these people’s dying moments are being used for entertainment in a movie, then that is just completely wrong.

I’m assuming those were actors, so the thing that bothered me the most was the periodic scenes with further terrorist attacks that occurred after 9/11.  No, it’s not that they were shown, but rather why they were shown.  The first hour and a half of the film is filled with the minutia of the research, detective work, and political wrangling that went into finding Bin Laden.  A lot of time is spent watching people looking at computer screens, standing by roads watching traffic, searching through documents, etc.  To be honest, it’s not exactly riveting viewing.  She tried, but Bigelow just could not make these scenes tension filled like she did in The Hurt Locker where a bomb might go off at any moment.  And I believe this is what led to the inclusion of these further terrorist attacks in the film.

If the movie had spent 90 minutes purely on research before getting to the raid it would have been something the film probably would not have recovered from.  Some people would have eventually shut it off.  Zero Dark Thirty therefore cuts away from the research periodically to show another attack – a bomb going off, people getting shot, a suicide bomber, etc.  These are all real events where people died and they are being reduced to nothing more than devices to inject some action into a slow section of a movie.  That bothers me.

Chastain has been nominated for Best Actress.  Unfortunately, after the first hour she doesn’t get to do much on screen.  In addition, we never actually learn anything about her character.  Other than being driven to succeed she is mostly two dimensional.  In fact, all of the characters in the film are more archetypes than people, whether they are other agents, politicians, or soldiers.  It’s almost like Bigelow went down a checklist of nominally connected scenes to show and inserted whichever archetype characters she needed for each scene.  Having now watched this film I’m no longer surprised that Bigelow did not receive a Best Director nomination.

Despite these things I still liked the movie overall.  It does show the challenges involved in finding Bin Laden and the section with the assault on the compound is almost riveting despite already knowing how it’s going to turn out.  Perhaps you are still worried about the torture scenes.  Frankly, they are not graphic at all.  Neither are the scenes where people die.  This movie spends less time showing damaged bodies than the average episode of a TV crime show.  Unless you think these scenes would still bother you then I recommend that you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. Those were actually real recordings in the prologue. It was disgusting. I thought the film was mediocre, the torture thing didn't bother me but that prologue and the amount of lies and sloppy research combined with bland Chastain really makes me baffled as for how the hell is this getting so much acclaim.

  2. "Those were actually real recordings in the prologue. It was disgusting."

    Man, that really sucks.

    I confess I was expecting a little more from this when I watched it. That's why I started with it in regards to seeing the Best Picture nominees.