Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

This is not going to be an easy review to write.

"Zero Dark Thirty", or as most are calling it "that movie where they kill Osama", is a movie that isn't meant to entertain, and its not entertaining.  Its slow, procedural, and plodding by design, recreating the bitterly slow and extremely technical process by which American intelligence was able to hunt down supervillain Osama bin Laden.  It was a man hunt that took many years and this movie feels like an entire decade of disappointments, frustrations, and obsession.  The director of this film was Kathryn Bigalow, who previously made the Oscar darling, "The Hurt Locker", a dreary uncompromising take on the Iraq War that I actually found unwatchable*.  The point here was not to make a Hollywood adventure with love stories or huge action setpieces or comedy, but instead the actual real life of modern intelligence.  But Bigalow seems to be a bit too focused on not being entertaining, making the movie unnecessarily dark, to the point that the main protagonist is extremely flat, not a great deal happens for long stretches, and ultimately squashing whatever patriotic excitement you might have gotten from the sight of Osama's soul being shotgunned right into the Muslim version of Hell.

I feel like we keep coming back to this point over and over again on this blog, but "Zero Dark Thirty" is much too long.  The movie is so subdued and specially-designed to be slow that actually not a great deal occurs during the first hour, to the point that I think somebody could walk in an hour after the movie began and probably not miss much of anything.  There's no real character interaction, and the plot only moves as quickly as the intelligence community combs through mountains of sand to find the one grain that leads them to their target.  And then, even after the main heroine has found Osama's compound, the movie spends what feels like a half hour of political discussion.  Then finally we can finally have the taking of the fortress, as SEAL Team 6 surgically step by step overwhelms Osama's protectors.  But we have no great celebration, there's a brief moment of "yes, we did it" but it ends with the protagonist weeping in the back of a cargo jet, perhaps out of guilt for the methods used to bring about this success, but more probably because she has nothing else in her life.

Jessica Chastain's character might be the most flat and one-dimensional figure to ever lead a Best Picture nominee.  If "Zero Dark Thirty" fails in any place, its because its heroine has nothing to her.  She lives and breaths intelligence, is a completely workaholic to the point of apparently having no friends, has no hobbies, has no interests, and is asexual.  Yeah, Chastain takes no crap from her superiors and is doggedly fanatical to her ultimate goal, but why?  What is the underlying psychology driving this robotic creature to destroy Osama?  This character is the movie, and... I got nothing here.  Jeremy Renner's character in ":Hurt Locker" fell in love with the war as a traumatic reaction to the stress of battle.  We have nothing of equal sophistication here.  I'd argue that "Zero Dark Thirty" doesn't actually have characters or what characters it does have are limited as supporting roles to the vacuum that is its protagonist.  Its too desperate to appear like serious art, that it can't actually be much of a movie at all.

A lot has been made over the small controversies involving the use of torture in finding Osama in this movie.  I suppose the sad fact is that in the actual events, information gained from torture was used, and we should problem focus more on our own real life moral ambiguity than wondering if a movie is advocating torture or not.  The manipulations and violence used against the Al-Qaeda prisoners is brutal, though I never found them particularly sympathetic since they're awful terrorist scumbags.  Maybe some other critics did, especially those who still dream of George W. Bush going up for Crimes Against Humanity.  The torture in this movie is never presented as a magic bullet end-all to all terrorist situations, this is no "24".  It takes a talented analyst to dig through the half-truths that the prisoners give to actually uncover the important information that matters.  Jessica Chastain is visually horrified by what is occurring, but she is explicitly supportive of the methods as long as it gives her what she wants.

A few Conservative pundits were worried this movie would be a bunch of pro-Obama nonsense designed to sway the 2012 election.  They were wrong, as you'd expect, Obama himself appears only in passing on a news report, and any heroism of any kind belongs solely to Jessica Chastain's character.  However, if you want to watch real election propaganda, enjoy the "documentary" (if you dare call it that) "2016: Obama's America".

"Zero Dark Thirty" does at least give a highly realistic image of modern intelligence.  American intelligence might actually be frighteningly inept, as we are completely unable to decide what is important and even what things they should be focused upon.  They're completely tricked by a false mole who turns into a suicide bomber, killing several key operatives.  "Zero Dark Thirty" takes place over the course of many years, and the complexity of the intelligence actions required all those many years to piece the picture together.  This is about as far as you can get from the glitz and glamor of 007, but it even breaks free from the dramatized human tragedy that was 2011's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy", an infinitely better movie than this.  Turns out that intelligence work is in actuality, horribly dull and monotonous.  You aren't going to be sleeping with gorgeous French/Chinese models, and you won't even get the interesting twist of having a dear friend sleep with your wife to sell secrets to the Russians, instead you're going to spend eight years in an embassy watching prisoner interview tapes.

I should also point out that "Zero Dark Thirty" has an incredible cast, if only for the fact that they're barely used.  We got Mark Strong, John Borrowman, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Duplass, and James Gandolfini, all playing minor roles, all more or less completely without character arcs.  Even Jessica Chastain brings a lot to her role, when there's more or less nothing there.  Though when her character has the most depth it only comes when she starts to imitate Carrie Mathison from "Homeland", which is a drama that was able to blend together our foreign policy paranoia with strong characters and entertaining stories.  But then again, being dramatic would be too entertaining, and if we weren't deadly serious throughout the entire operation of this film, then we'd possibly be an insult to the actual events of the story.

I'm reminded of a movie called "Flight 93" that was released a few years ago, that depicted in stark reality the events of 9/11 on board the highjacked flight that crashed in Pennsylvania after its passengers tried to take back their plane.  That was pretty terrifying stuff, as it was an exact historical recreation of that day, concluding with its horribly tragic ending.  I don't enjoy "Flight 93", it wasn't a movie made to be enjoyed, I don't really want to see it again, and the sight of those heroic passengers slamming directly into the ground, unable to get past the terrorists at the controls of the plane, is one of the more shocking endings in film.  But "Zero Dark Thirty" is a work of fiction that happens to be interlocked with real events, none of its protagonists exist.  And at over two hours, there's only so much dreary that one can take.

I didn't hate "Zero Dark Thirty", its actually a respectable and impressively constructed film.  However, aside from the exciting sequence of SEALs invading Osama's hiding place, there isn't much to recommend here.  I guess I'm being too harsh, since this is supposed to be a nearly-religious prayer to the success that was our killing of Osama.  But still... did it have to be so long?  I dunno.  If you want to see it just for the spectacle of Osama's death, go see it, that's why everybody else is there.  But as a movie, I really don't think "Zero Dark Thirty" is all that great.

Also, we fucking killed Osama!!  Do we have to walk around like we've committed some awful crime with this air of subdued seriousness, to the point of near-guilt?  This should be celebration, not mournful soul-searching.  Inertness won't cut it.   Let's crack a smile, people!  Can I get a USA!?  CAN I GET A USA!??  Yeah, I can.  USA!  USA!  USA!

* Maybe I should try again now that the Iraq War has ended, but two years ago it far too depressing to watch, and probably still is.  Also somebody claim that it was an action movie, when its really about bomb detectors and Jeremy Renner's completely insane character.  Also Kathryn Bigalow's best movie obviously is the vampire western, "Near Dark".

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