Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Film Review: Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty

Okay, let's get all that controversy-cum-in-defense-of boiler plate crap over with right away.  As anyone who has not been living under a rock (or in a cave in Afghanistan) knows, director Kathryn Bigelow's military procedural action thriller Zero Dark Thirty, though mostly praised by we critics (a thing I will be mostly doing myself in this review), has been getting cut down left and right.  Literally (or is that figuratively) from the actual left and right.  As conservatives bitch that they think the Obama white house gave away too much confidential information in helping the filmmakers make the film, liberals are whining that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, are acting as Bush/Cheney apologists, and condoning torture.  Social critic Naomi Wolf has even likened Bigelow to Third Reich director extraordinaire Leni Riefenstahl.  In my, not-so-humble opinion, I believe these allegations, form both sides of our bi-coloured political spectrum, to be total and utter bullshit.

Yes, the film does open up a dialogue on the moral ramifications of torture.  Was it a necessary evil?  Would we have gotten Bin Laden without the aid of torture?  These are questions we cannot possibly answer.  Yes, information gotten by means of torture led to the finding and killing of Osama bin Laden, but how are we to know we still wouldn't have gotten him without it.  Is torture wrong?  Of course it is, but perhaps, in some cases it was that very same necessary evil I questioned just above.  The fact that war even has supposed social conventions is quite ridiculous.  Basically, the act of war comes down to one side hoping to kill more people than the other side.  To question tactics in such an endeavor is downright ridiculous.  Of course, all this rambling about the use of torture, will probably bring controversy to me as well.  Maybe Naomi Wolf will liken me to fascist-sympathizing writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline - an assumption that would be just as wrong as her comparison of Bigelow to Riefenstahl.  Should torture have been used?  Morally no, but pragmatically, we can never say.  But no matter what was done to get the information that helped to track down and kill the man who orchestrated 9/11, in no way does Bigelow condone such acts in this film.

What Bigelow and Boal do in Zero Dark Thirty is show what occurred (and yes, torture did occur, whether the denyists want to believe it or not), and allow we, the viewers, to decide what is right and what is wrong, what is necessary and what is beyond the scope of morality.  We see Jessica Chastain's CIA operative, Maya, turn from someone who is disgusted by the waterboarding she witnesses as a newly assigned foreign agent, to a woman so determined to catch Bin Laden, that she is willing to do anything to make that happen.  It is not the filmmaker's job to say this is right or wrong, but instead to show us what they show us, and let us decide for ourselves.  Was the torture the right, or better yet, the necessary thing to do, or what is just wrong, pure and simple.  To paraphrase a famous quote from A Few Good Men, "Perhaps, deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want certain people, certain acts, on that proverbial wall," and in thinking this, maybe we are all complicit in the actions, whether right or wrong, of what it took to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden.  As for the right wing's accusations that the Obama white house allowed Bigelow and Boal and their crew, access to secret files - that too is pure bullshit.  If they were allowed access to anything, it was only files involving a mission that has already been done and gone several years prior.  But enough of all this tallywagging about who did what and who condoned what and who complained about what - let us move on to a review proper.  

The story, as if you didn't already know (really, have you been in a cave in Afghanistan the past six months?), is about the hunt for public enemy numero uno, Osama bin Laden.  The film stars the most dangerously talented Jessica Chastain - drop dead in both looks and ability - as a woman who spends the better part of a decade in search of the phantom known as bin Laden.  We watch her Maya go from determined but disenfranchised field newcomer, shading her eyes from the waterboarding of a detainee, to willing participant, to obsessed, self-proclaimed motherfucker, to, finally, when all is said and done, and the big man is dead and buried at sea, and her long, lonely struggle is at an end, a lost soul with no idea where to go from there.  Chastain pulls off this difficult, multifaceted character with a subtle grace and wicked chutzpah, that just helps to prove that the actress, since suddenly popping on the scene just two years ago (she was in every movie of 2011, right?), has become one of the finest actors around today.  All this and an almost inevitable Oscar in her near future.  Chastain is surrounded in the film by the likes of Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, Mark Duplass, Kyle Chandler, Édgar Ramirez and James Gandolfini, but this is her picture, and she not only makes it her own, but she, as the kids are saying these days, blows it out of the motherfucking water.

And to go along with this bravura performance by Chastain, is the pinpoint screenplay by Mark Boal and the balls out direction of Kathryn Bigelow.   Women can't make action films, my ass!  Much like the duo's previous collaboration, 2009's Oscar winning The Hurt Locker, the film that made Bigelow the first ever woman to win the Best Director Oscar, Zero Dark Thirty is an intense military drama - a procedural thriller that is as much an adrenaline rush as a psychological mindfuck - that gives as much of its attention to those quiet moments between battles, as it does to the battles, the missions, themselves.  Let's face it, we all know how this film is going to end.  We all saw the announcement on TV, when the president let the nation know that its number one villain was dead and gone.  There is no real mystery here - by film's end, we will get the bastard.  What Bigelow does though, is make every moment - from those aforementioned quiet ones to the explosive ones - filled to the veritable brim with a living intensity.  The film never shuts down.  It is always on.  Whether we are in the CIA offices, a detention center, or at the titular half past midnight, with the night-visioned Navy Seals creeping up on their eventual target like deadly goblins in the night, Bigelow's film vibrates with intensity.   We know what is coming next (though I must admit to experiencing a rather jump-out-of-my-seat moment) but it never calms down.  It never lets us rest.  It is unrelenting - and it damn well should be.

Zero Dark Thirty is an uncompromising thriller-diller of a motion picture, created by a director that, oddly enough, much like the aforementioned Fraulein Riefenstahl, can turn the horrendous into the gorgeous. Zero Dark Thirty is more than just a movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden - more than mere, albeit harrowingly seductive, action movie.  Zero Dark Thirty is a film that opens up a dialogue - a much needed dialogue.  Zero Dark Thirty is a film that dares us to think for ourselves - understand what needs to be done, and what did or did not need to be done.  Whether we see the condoning of torture or not (and to reiterate, we most certainly do not see that), Bigelow may very well be seen, to borrow a term from Woodrow Wilson, on Griffith's Birth of a Nation, as writing history with lightning.  What she is really doing, is making a film full of viscous, ofttimes reprehensible acts, as well as heroic, redemptive ones - and she is putting it all together with a surprising melange of subtlety and intensity.  What she is doing, is making a film that doesn't necessarily make us choose between right and wrong, between blind patriotism and questioning our government as Jefferson had wanted us to do, but a movie that makes us realize that good and evil - whatever those terms even mean in a discussion such as this - need each other in order to survive.  And I for one, applaud that, and in turn I applaud Zero Dark Thirty as well.


Anonymous said...

You're the man Kevin! Thanks for all the great reviews. I generally agree with them more than any other critic (although I still don't get your Tarantino fetish).

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx, whomever you may be. As for QT, he is the perfect blend of Kubrick, Leone, Nick Ray, Sammy Fuller and Godard. How could I not have a fetish for him.

Dan O. said...

A suspenseful and well put together movie, this terrifically made film is very similar in many ways to The Hurt Locker, even though this one may be better. Good review Kev.

Kevyn Knox said...

Thanx Dan. I agree, it is a better film than The Hurt Locker. It is a tricky thing to keep the suspense going in any film, especially one where we all know the outcome.