Jan. 10, 2013 - Issue #899: The games we play
Zero Dark Thirty
The moment underscores both the agonizing lengths of red tape and shrouds of secrecy that had to be applied out of sight on the hunt for bin Laden, and Zero Dark Thirty's blurry blend of fiction and reality. It's a thriller as much about bureaucratic frustrations as it is about actual thrills, as much about the endless (sometimes deadly) false leads and battles to be granted permission to take action as it is about the jarring moments of action—scenes of waterboarding, suicide bombing, assassination attempts and compound raids—that all of those boardroom battles eventually lead up to.
It's also almost three-hours long, and frequently engaging within that, but lumbering. In a way, it feels like a story better built as a television mini-series than one sit-down block of cinema (it's even broken down into episodic blocks with title cards named things like "9/11" or "The Meeting"). Still, for better or worse, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have crafted a smart take on a heavily contested and still-fresh topic, and they've done so without flinching. Jessica Chastain's based-on-a-real-agent Maya is an excellent lead, capable of shouldering such a gargantuan movie with a necessary, growing intensity—her frustrations quickly become ours, especially since we already know she's right—as her confidence in a hunch keeps her on the trail of a trickle of evidence that slowly, surely begins widening into a torrent.
So much talk of the movie's supposed pro-torture stance seems misplaced: in its scenes of waterboarding and other cruelties inflicted upon prisoners by Americans, Zero Dark Thirty doesn't so much condone torture as it just refuses to look away. Bigelow and co. give a graphic depiction, and if that infuriates you, well, you should know better where to direct your anger.
In contrast, what seems under-discussed is the grey area that Zero Dark Thirty occupies between fiction and truth. It's a blockbuster take on a real event, culled from real research and discussions with the CIA and so on, but, ultimately, it's a work of fiction: because of its cinematic treatment (plus a swell of Oscar-buzz), it's also going to stand up as most people's definitive version of how the hunt for bin Laden played out. That it doesn't feel like propaganda for any side is a credit to Bigelow and Boal's handling of their onerous position, but it still doesn't sit quite right, not knowing where the researched truth ends and filmmaker storytelling begins, especially when its events are only a few years old.
Zero Dark Thirty's most rewarding sequence comes near the end, as Navy SEALs begin their raid on the compound where Maya's certain bin Laden is hiding. It's filmed in a mostly silent sequence, cloaked in night vision and what feels like surveillance footage. It carries an incredible, hold-your-breath tension, so, if nothing else, Zero Dark Thirty goes out on a satisfying bang. But it does so as a piece of fictitious cinema more than history. Hopefully it'll be remembered as such.
Opens Opens Friday
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
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