by Coop Cooper
“Zero Dark Thirty” speculates the events leading up to the raid in Pakistan which culminated in a U.S. Navy S.E.A.L. team killing the terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives in Pakistan to observe tortures of captured terrorists and eventually uncovers a lead as to where bin Laden is hiding. Her efforts prompt S.E.A.L. Team Six to execute a raid on bin Laden’s compound, an event which is painstakingly recreated by the Oscar-winning director of “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow.
I have always disliked these ‘too soon’ fictional accounts of non-fiction events which rely on wild speculation to dramatize recent incidents. Films like “The Perfect Storm,” “World Trade Center,” “United 93” and “The Social Network” always felt forced and disingenuous considering it’s doubtful they did proper justice to the actual events they portray. With those sore memories still fresh in the minds of friends, family and the public, I cringe when writers and directors make choices that may paint real-life people, dead or alive, represented in these films as heels or heroes when they may or may not have been. “Zero Dark Thirty” certainly has a few heroes (although you’ll never know their real names) but ultimately the motivation for creating this film is suspect.
As a technical achievement, the film is outstanding which is not surprising considering Bigelow is the most skilled female director in the U.S. I took offense when a “Women in Film” professor I had in college dismissed Bigelow as a director because she made movies ‘like a dude.’ If that’s what makes her competitive in a male-driven career path, I’d say that’s mighty impressive. “The Hurt Locker” was my favorite movie of 2008 and one of the qualities I loved about it is that it side-stepped the politics about the war in Afghanistan to focus entirely on the story of the soldiers involved. “Zero” intentionally courted controversy since the day it was announced. The negative press surrounding its agenda and the government’s role in the creation of the film will mar its achievements in the minds of some.
The film first became a hot-button issue when media pundits and politicians began accusing Bigelow of using the film to campaign for President Obama’s 2012 reelection considering the credit given to him and his administration for bin Laden’s neutralization. The timing of the release was of particular concern since it was scheduled right before election day and was rumored to contain praise for the president in the film. In response to this criticism, the release date was pushed back until after the election and the only presence of the president in the film was in the background on a TV. Controversy continued when more accusations arose that the administration had allowed filmmakers inappropriate access to classified information for their research. Actor Jason Clarke set off yet another firestorm when he revealed he had been waterboarded willingly on set to learn more about the process. Others condemned the film for its depiction of torture, including members of Congress who claimed the CIA falsely lead the filmmakers to believe torture was the primary tool for locating bin Laden.
I do find it fascinating that the film takes no stance on the issue of torture considering how much of it is in the film. Only the very unprofessional squirming of Maya during these scenes gave any indication that what the interrogators are doing might be morally questionable. Not showing her hand on the issue probably kept Bigelow from drawing the ire of most viewers but those who actively and openly oppose these types of interrogations are taking her to task for merely showing it, message or not.
Was it accurate overall? Impossible to tell because it’s supposed to be classified in order to protect our CIA and Navy S.E.A.L. operatives. The actual raid scene felt more genuine than the majority of the whole, but you have to sit through a lot of slow torture and slow talking before getting there. When it does happen, it’s cool except for the “Blair Witch” style through night-vision scopes style of camerawork. If only I had liked the characters more or had gotten to know the S.E.A.L. team earlier, it might have been more salvageable. I still think Jessica Chastain is one of the finest actresses in the biz and Jason Clarke is easily one of the most underrated.
Most of it is dull and the controversies were a real turn-off but perhaps in a couple of decades, I can forget all of that and appreciate it for its positive attributes. However, I fear that not only will it receive Oscar nominations, but that it will win “Best Picture” for all the wrong reasons. It is constructed in such a way, people will like it because they see what political statement/agenda they want to see within its context. It’s a dirty trick. What I saw in “Zero Dark Thirty” was the continued martyrdom of a vile individual and terrorist (only one of many) who doesn’t deserve any further regard in death. This and the thought of poking the wounds of 9/11 for a quick buck turns my stomach. I wish it had turned Katheryn Bigelow’s.
Rating: 2 out of 5