Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty"
Zero Dark Thirty
By most cinematic measures, "Zero Dark Thirty" is one of the best-made films of 2012. It also probably shouldn't exist.
An encore presentation by the team of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal -- who collected Oscars for 2008's "The Hurt Locker" -- "Zero Dark Thirty" recounts the CIA's hunt for Osama bin Laden, the man who claimed responsibility for the 9/11 terrorist attack. At the outset, the film announces it is "based on first-hand accounts of actual events." It's no spoiler to say that the film begins with actual audio from Sept. 11, 2001, and ends with bin Laden being shot in the head by U.S. Navy SEALs in May 2011.
By following a fiercely determined CIA officer (Jessica Chastain's Maya), "Zero Dark Thirty" creates an identification with her agony of defeat and thrill of victory along the way, building a rooting interest while otherwise eschewing character development in favor of detail-oriented procedural.
But the devil is in the details. While I have no doubt that Boal's docudramatic screenplay hews closely to his journalistic research, one might well say, "Consider the sources." And the calendar. Even more so than with Paul Greengrass' "United 93," it's fair to suggest that the Hollywood treatment of such politically delicate -- and, in this case, covert -- recent history comes "too soon," and is lacking in the crucial historical perspective that comes with time.
Certainly, Chastain turns in a potent performance (Bigelow saves the most emotionally complex moment for the film's resolution, as Chastain wordlessly processes the closure of 10 driven years), and the sprawling ensemble cast supports her well, especially Jason Clarke as an "enhanced interrogation technique" expert and Kyle Chandler as the CIA Islamabad station chief Joseph Bradley. The film's tech specs are second to none, with crack work from cinematographer Greig Fraser and editors William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor. In particular, the lengthy raid sequence constitutes bravura edge-of-the-seat filmmaking that makes "The Hurt Locker" look like a mere warm-up.
But to what end? What purpose does "Zero Dark Thirty" serve? Should this story be entertainment? And if it isn't entertainment, what is it? These are questions Bigelow and Boal are content to sidestep as they claim, "Just the facts," except where they don't: torture.
The op-ed arguments over the film's depiction of torture as a horrible necessity in finding bin Laden demonstrate the problem of prematurely turning the story into Hollywood legend. Sadly, that's the way most citizens will view and remember these events.
Instead of dealing with the inherently political dimensions of their narrative, the filmmakers have disingenuously insisted upon the film's apoliticism in its embrace of procedural narrative. No one and nothing in the film ever questions the goal of the mission, as expressed by Maya to SEAL Team Six: "Bin Laden is there, and you're going to kill him for me." While it's no doubt accurate that capture was never considered, the film stands as an implicit endorsement of political assassination by celebrating the admirable qualities (determination and bravery, shoe and boot leather, and military skill) with which it is carried out.
A complex film would seek a more balanced picture of these events and their implications, depict bin Laden instead of pointedly doing the opposite, examine the political capital that bin Laden's execution signified for the sitting president, and perhaps have an insider make a crack about rule of law. By turning this significant historical event into a willfully noncontemplative thriller, "Zero Dark Thirty" risks resuscitating the motto of the satirical 2004 action comedy "Team America: World Police": "America! F*** Yeah!"
Rated R for language and strong violence including brutal images. 2 hours, 37 minutes.
- Peter Canavese