Sunday, March 17, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty is Somewhere Between Zero and Dark

Zero Dark Thirty. Wiki.
Zero Dark Thirty is a film so controversial that when John McCain finally saw it, he jumped up and screamed: “I hate the Gooks! I will hate them as long as I live!” And if not for his personal handler, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who promptly pacified McCain with milk and cookies, God only knows what would happen.

No. Thankfully, none of those things are true (except McCain screaming "I hate the Gooks!" That actually happened). There was, however, a small matter of the Senate Intelligence Committee inquiry into the writer Mark Boal’s and director Kathryn Bigelow’s CIA-sourced material, which may have served as the basis for the torture scenes. The probe was quickly dropped because it was a waste of taxpayer money and a juvenile idea to begin with.

Still, violent representations of torture do make up a substantial portion of the movie—in all, about 20 minutes (I actually timed it). That may seem merely episodic in a two and a half hour film. It is not. To put it in better perspective, a 20 minute action-dialog sequence is at least 20 pages of a shooting script. That’s a serious expenditure of creative energy and, by that extension, money—from writing to casting to shooting to editing to marketing—all made intentional, to be sure.

Of course I personally didn’t have a problem with any of it. Under a trumped up set of laws, our country’s leadership, from the President on down, did authorize torture and run a number of CIA Black Sites, where waterboarding, dog collars, sleep deprivation and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" were carried out almost entirely outside of the public purview. Zero Dark Thirty simply made use of the record. Does the film glorify it, as some of the critics and members of Congress charge? Not by my lights.

For me, the real trouble was that none of that icky stuff amounted to much of a point. Unless it were to say that bearded PhD guys can kick ass too. And of course by "kick ass" I mean gang-beating defenseless brown people tied up to a ceiling. The film did try to scratch at larger themes when a senior CIA operative George, played brilliantly by one of my favorite actors, Mark Strong, questioned Washington’s decision to terminate the detainee program. “Who am I supposed to ask about Bin Laden now?” George pleaded with politicos as they pressed him for results. Then he urged them (and us) to consider the existential dialectic of indecision versus action—a brain teaser of risk and inverse risk that totally baffled me when I was in seventh grade.

And then there is the more obvious issue of the narrative drive. The obvious part being that we know what happens in the end: we kill the bad guy. Not to sound like a workshop egg-head, but that problem could have been solved had Boal and Bigelow made Maya a more complex character rather than your go-getting, not-sit-behind-the-desk chop lady stereotype.   
"My guess is that much of the fascination with this film is inspired by the unveiling of facts, unclearly seen,” Roger Ebert wrote. “There isn't a whole lot of plot – basically, just that Maya thinks she is right, and she is." 
All I can say is thank god for Jessica Chastain who breathed life into Maya and rescued her from the abyss of bad writing. 

Zero Dark Thirty’s fatal flaw is that in its attempt at blazing realism—dogged research and unwavering commitment to record—the film comes off feeling like a piece of journalism gone amok. It's full of bad-ass CIA jargon like "Egress," "Canaries," and "OBL." But in the end, too loose with facts for a documentary and way too short on human drama for a decent film, it is neither meat nor potatoes. Neither here nor there. Walking this balance is by no means easy, and very few filmmakers that set out to tell this kind of story found success. But those who did ostensibly sacrificed historical accuracy for emotional texture, style, and moral conflict.

“The organizing principle of any society, Mister Garrison, is for war,” said Mr. X, a CIA rouge in Oliver Stone’s JFK. “No war, no money.” Conversely, in Zero Dark Thirty just about everyone is bent on getting Bin Laden and all the wrangles and differences are purely tactical: Is he really inside the compound? To bomb or not to bomb? How long is his beard? Meanwhile, the very real entrenched interests of the defense contractors and their push to ignore Bin Laden in favor of larger, more profitable wars were neglected all together.

Syriana also does a better job at tackling some of the same "war on terror" themes precisely because it strays from its text of origin, a memoir written by a former CIA case worker Robert Baer. Instead, it weaves together petroleum politics, radical Islam, global finance and CIA’s own lumbering bureaucracy in bravura style worthy of Italian Neorealists, but also one so vividly impressionistic that at times watching the film feels more like reading a Don DeLillo novel.

Zero Dark Thirty meanwhile can’t seem to make up its mind about what it wants to be, a movie or a documentary. In the final scene of killing Bin Laden, the impulse to convey realism yields some excellent footage of cyber-ninja Navy SEALs doing some hi-tech shooting. But then one of the commandos pauses to gaze over the dead and reflect on the violence. Not only would this never happen during a special forces operation, where each life-or-death second is accounted for, an actual hit of this kind is likely executed in half the time it takes to play its movie version.

David Denby of the New Yorker:
"In attempting to show, in a mainstream movie, the reprehensibility of torture, and what was done in our name, the filmmakers seem to have conflated events, and in this they have generated a sore controversy: the chairs of two Senate committees have said that the information used to find bin Laden was not uncovered through waterboarding. Do such scenes hurt the movie? Not as art; they are expertly done, without flinching from the horror of the acts and without exploitation. But they damage the movie as an alleged authentic account. Bigelow and Boal – the team behindThe Hurt Locker – want to claim the authority of fact and the freedom of fiction at the same time, and the contradiction mars an ambitious project."
That's because recorded history comes with built-in blind spots which obfuscate—often intentionally— individual human experience. Zero Dark Thirty stuck to the facts, but failed to give them meaning. For that, Boal and Bigelow should have looked to their own first joint project , The Hurt Locker. War is a drug and the film captured its morbid ecstasy. A triumph in dramatic storytelling, The Hurt Locker succeeded because it broke with journalistic realism and risked a leap of the imaginary inside a soldier’s heart. To me, Zero Dark Thirty is a failure because it didn't.

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