Perhaps it’s not the best way to approach art criticism, but it seems impossible to me to separate the content of a film from the form or structure supporting said content. The Birth of a Nation is without question one of the most important films ever made from a technical perspective, but its loathsome racist content makes it a shining example of an exceptionally talented director using his powers for evil. Leni Riefenstahl would follow the same path when she made Triumph of the Will for the Nazi government. With great talent comes great responsibility (to paraphrase Uncle Ben), and Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow is certainly a great talent. She has now made arguably the two definitive films on the war on terror, although I would never compare her moral lapses to D.W. Griffith or Leni Riefenstahl, my respect for the filmcraft on display in Zero Dark Thirty is nearly overwhelmed by the morally reprehensible political subtext of this otherwise first-rate drama.
Because let there be no doubts, Zero Dark Thirty is easily the best procedural drama since Zodiac. At just shy of three hours long, Zero Dark Thirty is engrossing, intricate, and brutally honest in its display of the hunt for the most wanted fugitive in American history. Although it lacks some of the character-driven aspects that makes Zodiac one of the best American films of the aughts, Zero Dark Thirty is dedicated to presenting a realistic portrayal of the dirty work our nation’s intelligence officers embroil themselves in in order to catch the bad guys. But the film’s unwillingness to make a statement about the dirtiest of the dirty work compromises the vision of the film, but more on the political subtext of the film later. Let me simply lead then with the fact that I found myself simultaneously loathing and loving Zero Dark Thirty on multiple occasions during the film’s run time.
The plot of Zero Dark Thirty is both as simple as it is complex and it’s a testament to the expert tapestry that is the film’s screenplay that it never becomes too difficult to follow this constantly weaving and shifting story. The surface is what’s simple. It is about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. But, it’s when you push past that simple log line that you realize just how intricate this film is. Focusing mostly on one C.I.A Agent, Maya (The Tree of Life‘s Jessica Chastain), whose obsession with locating and killing Osama bin Laden is ultimately what brings the man down. From her introduction to an al Qaeda financier being put under “enhanced interrogation” at a CIA Black site to a web of surveillance, bribes, and international terrorism, Maya and the team surrounding her exhaust every tool of the intelligence community to capture Osama bin Laden.
And that’s all I want to say for fear of spoiling the pleasure that is the intellectual gamesmanship that is on display as Maya and the others involved in the search risk their lives and occasionally their sanity to capture bin Laden. Much like Zodiac, this film relies on an honest display of an investigation (though this one actually ends with them catching the bad guy), and so you are sent on plenty of false leads, wild goose chases, and outright disappointments as they think they have something that turns out to be nothing. And the film does not shy away from displaying some of the loathsome tactics the American intelligence community was using to get that information. However, it’s the films unwillingness to make a statement on said methods (which becomes, essentially, a silent approval) that proves to be the movie’s only true flaw.
Because, allow mew to make no bones about this, enhanced interrogation is torture. Water boarding is torture. Beating prisoners is torture. Locking them in a box that their bodies barely fit in is torture. Sleep deprivation is torture. Stripping a prisoner naked and leading them around on a dog collar is torture. You see all of these things happen in Zero Dark Thirty, and just when you think the film is saying it’s bad (by having Maya be rightfully disgusted at it happening), the heroine of the film stamps her approval on it by being even more efficient in her “enhanced interrogation” than the CIA agent we first meet in the film’s opening sequence. The film makes the case that we would have never caught bin Laden without these methods which may be true. But it also never makes the more important case that maybe that our nation’s moral high ground is more important.
The film constantly drives its silent approval of torture home by interplaying re-enactments of actual incidences of terrorism (the London bus bombings, the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott, the attack on a Saudi embassy) immediately after some interrogation technique fails to acquire results. The film makes the accurate point that every second a terrorist refuses to give up information, it allows the terrorists at large to do an attack. But by torturing, we simply feed the fuels for terrorist recruitment, and even the film admits that most of the valuable information came from non-torture interrogation techniques. But the very clear political message of this film is that you have to get your hands dirty to get the bad guys, and considering most of the empirical evidence suggests otherwise, that political aspect of the film is simply loathsome.
For an actress whose name I didn’t know before 2011 (and I know most actors and actresses and their whole filmographies), Jessica Chastain has become one of Hollywood’s most consistently talented stars. Although I wasn’t sure why her performance was so Oscar-worthy at first (she was nominated but lost to Jennifer Lawrence), as Maya loses herself in the investigation to locate bin Laden, Jessica Chastain captures the obsession and desperation and alienation that take over Maya’s life. A character comments on how strung out Maya is looking halfway through the film, and before the movie’s over, Chastain’s physical and emotional transformation is enough to make the audience itself exhausted. And Zero Dark Thirty is chock full of great supporting performances including Kyle Chandler, Christopher Pratt, James Gandolfini, and Jason Clarke.
If you aren’t bothered by the film’s political message, by all means, watch Zero Dark Thirty right now. It’s an intellectual thrill ride through the modern intelligence community, and I found it to be absolutely enthralling when I wasn’t positively disgusted by it. If, like me, you have a moral conscience, you should probably still watch Zero Dark Thirty. From a technical perspective, it’s easily one of the best films of 2012, and if I didn’t find it so disgusting at times, I probably would have given it an “A.” However, Bigelow’s ultimate glorification of the truly awful and inhuman things the American government did to capture Osama bin Laden is wrong. And it’s wrong to use her considerable directorial talents for what may one day become a conservative propaganda film. So, instead, Zero Dark Thirty is a…
Final Score: B+