Zero Dark Thirty Review: Boal and Bigelow punt on the hard stuff

It’s impossible to review Zero Dark Thirty without having to infiltrate a room full of political lasers like Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment (much nicer metaphor than a mine field, isn’t it?). But you invite that when your movie screams “THIS IS TRUE” at the beginning, like Zero Dark Thirty does in its opening “real events” title card. You can’t just forgive everything in the guise of “but it’s a movie!” when the movie is so clearly telling you that it’s fact. Thus, whether Zero Dark Thirty correctly depicts torture isn’t nitpicking, it’s relevant. So is it “pro-torture,” as John McCain, Dianne Feinstein, and others have alleged? Mark Bowden, who wrote a book about the search for Bin Laden, says it’s not. Alex Gibney, who directed a movie about torture, doesn’t quite say Zero Dark Thirty is pro torture, but says it’s irresponsible.

To make a long story short and an answer predictable, they’re both right. Zero Dark Thirty is not immoral because it depicts torture as it was (something that happened, a context, a small part of the story but not a major player) without taking a particular stance. But it is a little amoral that it doesn’t seem to take any stance. It even omits key events to keep from having to. From an artistic standpoint, it doesn’t seem particularly concerned with humans. It feels like an attempt to create suspense with no soul. Bowden’s rule of thumb for dramatizing a true story responsibly is that you can invent, but you have to “color inside the lines” of the truth. That is, you create fictions within the unknowns without altering the shape of the facts. Zero Dark Thirty mostly does that, but it also omits big chunks of them (we’ll get to that). Artistically, another problem is, who is Jessica Chastain’s character? I watched the whole movie and I still know nothing about her. Zero Dark Thirty invents a character with no apparent personality to tell a story the broad strokes of which we already know. How does that help? It even makes the movie dull at times, like a dry and talky procedural. The lady next to me was snoring loudly.

The Hurt Locker, for all the massive liberties it takes with actual military tactics, had a compelling protagonist and a clear perspective. “War is a drug.” What’s Zero Dark Thirty‘s perspective? Redheads are smart? Incorrectly or not, people jumped to “torture is good” because there’s a vacuum of anything else.

Gibney says ZDT is wrong because it doesn’t use its opportunity to argue against torture:

The point I’m making is that, when the full history of “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” is told we will see that it was not only brutal and counterproductive but ridiculous. The CIA waterboarded Abu Zubaydah 83 times and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times. Considering the repetition, just how effective were those techniques? And how good does the CIA look for insisting on mindless repetition of useless tactics?

But in ZD30, Boal and Bigelow have a problem. In the logic of a “movie,” it’s difficult for viewers root for people who are making terrible mistakes, have become corrupted or who are showcasing needless brutality. As a result, while the filmmakers do showcase American brutality, they suggest that it was necessary.

I’m not sure if Boal and Bigelow actually suggest that. Bowden counters:

Pure storytelling is not always about making an argument, no matter how worthy. It can be simply about telling the truth. Because torture was in the mix during all of the early interrogations, it would be wrong to ignore it, and impossible to say it had no effect.

Zero Dark Thirty seems to be more in the business of depicting arguments than making them, and that’s fine. But the bigger problem is, it omits crucial, compelling, real arguments in favor of easily-resolved fake ones.

It tells the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden through the eyes of this tenacious redhead played by Jessica Chastain. “Maya” doesn’t care about anything except finding Bin Laden (and, as depicted by the movie, has no friends, family, hobbies, sense of humor, or recreation of any kind), and she’s the main driving force behind the search, long after virtually everyone else has moved onto other things. That’s not really true, by the way. According to most people in the know, there were always multiple people pursuing the leads she’s seen as working on alone in the movie. But from the standpoint that she represents a composite of multiple people, fine. That’s a common trick in non-fiction writing. But at one point, Maya and her boss have it out over whether she should be working on Bin Laden or trying to prevent the next terror attack. Maya screams in her boss’s face, in a not-particularly-believable way, that he’s just some asshole looking to pad his resume (with another “Mullah Crackadullah”). And the way the movie shows it, in this retroactive, Aaron Sorkin-esque, see-she-was-right-all-along kind of way, it seems to indicate they think she was right. But was she? The question of whether you should be spending more energy on preventing future attacks, or punishing a mastermind of past attacks seems a lot more legitimate than the way it’s depicted here.

Kathryn Bigelow is brilliant at creating suspense, and for evidence you need look no further than The Hurt Locker, which was one long exercise in sustained tension. The way she combines shots to create a sense of forboding and builds action scenes with such a fully-realized sense of spatial awareness is as good as anyone. But at times she’s just as guilty of blatant and unnecessary lily-gilding as Ben Affleck at the end of Argo. Maya’s no-nonsense southerner of a colleague, for instance, has high hopes for a  high-level informant. I can dig that, but there are better ways of illustrating this woman’s high hopes for this informant than having her bring a cake she baked him to their first meeting. Seriously, she bakes him a f*cking cake. This is very stupid. And unlikely. In reality, when a potential informant wasn’t subjected to the normal searches before a meeting at Camp Chapman in 2009, it seems to be because that informant had already been working closely with the CIA. I highly doubt it was because his handler was acting like a big ol’ girl waiting for her prom date. Not surprisingly, the CIA doesn’t seem to be too thrilled with this depiction. [Update: Apparently the cake thing actually happened. I stand corrected. Apologie.]

You get a greater sense of the Navy SEALS as people “with their dip and their f*cking velcro,” as Maya says, in the 10 minutes that they’re on screen than you do for Maya in the other two and a half hours.

As depicted in the film, the raid on Osama’s pad in Abbattobad is spare and tense and unsentimental and beautiful, but that unsentimentality could really use some context. On that front, Zero Dark Thirty whiffs. The only context we’re given when Maya pitches the raid to CIA director Leon Panetta, played by James Gandolfini (in real life, Obama would’ve been there too) is them arguing over what percentage chance there is that Bin Laden will actually be there when they swoop down and bust in the door. (60 percent, say the poindexters. 100 PERCENT! says Maya, because she believes in herself, you see). That’s all fine and dandy, but you mean to tell me that there wasn’t one discussion about what the plan was once they found him? It was just generally understood that they were going to blow his brains out, even if everyone in the house held up the white flag and laid face down on the floor? Totally leaving feelings aside, not even one callous, totally politically-motivated hypothetical about the public’s reaction to shooting an unarmed guy without a trial, or potential blowback from possible collateral damage? No discussion about the strategic value of capturing him instead of killing him? Bullshit. Those conversations did happen. Unsentimentalizing your movie is one thing, but you can’t just unsentimentalize your characters, especially when they’re real people. It’s unfair to the people calling the shots and the SEALs doing the dirty work.

Even if you forgive the lack of fully realized humans, because this is supposed to be about the “how” of an operation, there’s stuff missing. In all this supposedly-detailed, insider glimpse into the inner workings of those planning the Bin Laden raid, no one even ever uses the word “stop,” “put down,” “neutralize,” “collateral damage…” nothing.  And it’s f*cking piss weak when you can’t even euphemize the decision to blow a dude’s brains all over the wall of his putrid living room. Don’t give us the excuse that you’re just presenting facts and then punt on all the hard stuff. This is a movie for people who want to eat their fish without having to gut it first. F*ck that. You want to talk tough, I’m with you, but you’re going to have to get your hands dirty.

And I know there will always be the excuse of “it was just starting a dialog!” But that doesn’t hold water for me. There were parts of this movie left out specifically to avoid a dialog, simply because it was easier. Kathryn Bigelow made an at-times suspensful movie (the raid in particular was incredible) that doesn’t feel as long as the 160-minute running time. But it seems like she’s got no skin in the game, and she desperately needs some.


Other recent reviews by Vince: Gangster Squad, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Not Fade Away, Les Mis as a Smash Mouth song.