Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 2012
US, 157 minutes
Spoiler alert! Insofar as you definitely know how the film ends, this is kind of redundant. But if you don’t want to know how it gets there, read no further…
Descending two escalators into the bowels of New York’s Museum of Modern Art at a pre-release screening of Zero Dark Thirty last Thursday — with the feeling of privileged access that a preview gives you — was an apt way for me to encounter the film. It is director Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker, which won a ton of awards a couple of years ago, and — I will argue — is a Pandora’s Box waiting to be opened in terms of its depiction of real historical events. With the opening legend proclaiming that the film is based on “first hand accounts” of “actual events” and reports circulating that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal interviewed one of the CIA agents at the centre of Operation Neptune Spear, the operation that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, one suspects this is the closest we will get for a very long time (and possibly ever) to a graphic quasi-official account of what went down the first night of May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The alleged accuracy also lends the film a vaguely snuffish air which isn’t exactly comfortable, especially during the undeniably fantastically exciting sequence in which bin Laden’s compound is raided. But I’m not sure that the film has enough self-consciousness about it to ascend from the level of propagandistic action thriller to the realm of responsible adult cinema.
The last section of Zero Dark Thirty is in many ways the nexus of the film’s many problems. Were this a film not about real events I have no doubt it would function as a highly competent, absorbing action thriller with an excellent central performance and a brilliant last half-hour. In many ways, the awards it’s already picked up — including Best Film from the New York Film Critics Circle — legitimate it as exactly this kind of product, and critical response has focused a lot on the technical and aesthetic qualities of the film. It even has a video game tie-in, as maps of places in the film will be downloadable accessories for Electronic Arts’ Medal of Honor: Warfighter from December 19. But is this all OK?
I am a strong advocate of trying to read a film for what it is rather than what you want it to be, but this is very difficult when what it purports to be is undermined by what it is.
For a start, the media buzz about the film’s authenticity serves to suppress some of the biggest questions a viewer should perhaps be considering. Alarm bells should at least be tinkling, for a start, about the obvious fallacy of the alleged authenticity on display: characters have inevitably had to be fictionalised or amalgamated for reasons of dramatic effect and national security. And this is aside from the various real-world disputes over exactly what happened in the first place, and the emerging critical debate over what has been left in and out of Bigelow/Boal’s narrative.
Placing Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent Maya at the scene of the bombing of the Marriott in Islamabad, and focusing on events like the fatal betrayal of Jennifer Ehle’s fellow agent Jessica, help to form a logical structure that makes bin Laden’s death an important and necessary conclusion to a plot, at the expense of counter-argument or wider context (the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan are never presented from a civilian perspective, for instance). Another question of representational responsibility: pitching the viewer headlong into a 10-minute sequence of waterboarding at the film’s outset could put undue emphasis on the use of torture in the eventual locating of bin Laden, as Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden, from 9/11 to Abbottabad, argues on the CNN website (in much more detail than I could with any authority). It’s hard to write all of this and assert that I’m making an aesthetic point rather than a political one, but here goes nothing anyway: is a two-and-a-half-hour film a responsible medium through which to tell any such complex story if there is only space for a monolithic, hermetic* account?
[* Interesting, perhaps, in the context that one citation for hermetic on Merriam-Webster's online dictionary is "trapped inside the hermetic military machine", a description that could easily refer to the black hole into which Freedom of Information requests relating to Operation Neptune Spear have generally fallen...]
Other questions one might consider that I don’t pretend to have coherent answers to:
1. What’s John Barrowman, a marquis of light entertainment as far as I’m concerned, doing at Langley, Virginia, working alongside James Gandolfini’s Leon Panetta? For that matter, what’s Tony Soprano doing playing Leon Panetta? I’m all in favour of casting against type and actors avoiding typecasting, but Gandolfini provoked gales of laughter at the screening I attended and I suspect British audiences will smirk at the tonal weirdness of Barrowman’s brief cameo too.
2. Does Alexandre Desplat’s subtle but still undeniably Terminator 2ish soundtrack sit comfortably in a film that often shoots for documentary, almost point-of-view realism (especially during the assault on the compound)?
3. Do post-hoc observations on the WMD debacle and dramatic-ironic questions like “How do you evaluate the risk of not doing something?” serve any purpose outside the construction of a narrative architecture that’s been plonked awkwardly on top of the entropic mess of white noise and black ops that was the first decade of the twenty-first century?
4. By having Chastain identify bin Laden’s remains — thus activating various sad/loving tropes from countless other cinematic scenarios — and then, in the film’s final shot, depicting her helplessly, cathartically tearful, do Bigelow and Boal run the risk of reducing a ten-year manhunt and two colossal wars to an easily digestible personal tragedy?
In short, there’s too much filminess in it. The plot is too neat, a join-the-dots based on hindsight, too much like an extended “Previously on Homeland” sequence; the actors, with their recognisable faces and starry baggage, are distractingly familiar; the cut of the film’s jib is too geared towards your consideration in all categories. This is the film’s inherent vice — at least on a philosophical level.
If you’re not worried, though, about the polemical power of the interaction between cinematic narrative and “real life”, then there’s an awful lot you will find to enjoy about the film. The raid on the compound is an amazing tranche of cinema, frightening and tense despite one’s knowledge of its outcome. The sound effects throughout the film — and in particular at this latter stage — are incredible, so frankly noisy that they come as a genuine and (one feels) appropriate jolt. The promiscuous use of jargon and code and the proliferation of new or single-use characters, both dangerous tactics, are pulled off masterfully. Jessica Chastain, strongly reminiscent of Claire Danes’s character in the similarly themed Homeland, is compelling as a tough-cookie CIA obsessive unafraid to answer, in response to a “Who are you?” from Leon Panetta, “I’m the motherfucker that found this place [the compound in Abbottabad], sir.”
Still, the visual and aural pleasures of the film — in their abundance, granted — unsettled me two floors down in MoMA and they unsettle me days later as I try to gain proper traction on Zero Dark Thirty and its representational dilemmas. They make it hard to do what is most essential: forget how good a film it is and think about what actually happened.