Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Premise: A dramatization of the decade long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, focusing on the efforts of a CIA agent (Jessica Chastain).
What Works: Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization of recent history with the intent of immersing the audience in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and capturing the frustration and danger of being on the frontlines of a covert war. The filmmakers succeed in doing that and at its best Zero Dark Thirty is a harrowing thriller. The filmmakers of Zero Dark Thirty use a cinema vérité style, meaning that it has a look similar to an observational documentary and so the lighting and set design is often very gritty and the filmmakers rarely use music or intrusive camera techniques. The approach is very similar to that of United 93, the 2006 dramatization of the September 11th attack; the two movies are remarkably similar in tone and style and they would make an excellent double feature. Zero Dark Thirty could be mistaken for one of the many jingoistic action films of late such as Act of Valor but it isn’t. Rather, Zero Dark Thirty is a rebuttal of those films. It’s not that Zero Dark Thirty is unpatriotic but a jingoistic film deals in moral certainty. In films like The Green Berets, the Americans possess impeccable integrity and absolute moral authority. Zero Dark Thirty traffics in moral ambiguity, the anathema of a jingoistic story. Scenes of bureaucrats wrangling with red tape and American agents torturing detainees are not designed to inspire nationalism. Even the finale, in which the Navy SEAL team raids the bin Laden compound, is not a celebration of American militarism. What director Kathryn Bigelow and her crew have created is a stark portrayal of modern warfare in the post-9/11 era. With that in mind Zero Dark Thirty succeeds, at times brilliantly. The detective work is as engaging as any crime drama and the SEAL raid is among the best action sequences in contemporary war films.
What Doesn’t: The comparison between Zero Dark Thirty and United 93 is apt in both positive and negative ways. Zero Dark Thirty echoes many of the cinematic accomplishments of United 93 but it also shares that film’s limitations. The cinema vérité style immerses the audience in the moment but it also constricts the filmmakers from reaching an epiphany. By contrast with the 2005 film Munich, which dramatized Israel’s retaliation for the 1972 Black September massacre, there is no moment of reflection in which the characters or the audience reach a conclusion. Zero Dark Thirty ends very ambiguously, and that in itself may be the point, but there is a difference between intentionally undermining narrative expectations and failing to provide a conclusion. The cinema vérité style of the filmmaking also becomes very problematic for the movie in its depiction of torture. Some critics and politicians have attacked Zero Dark Thirty under the auspices that it glorifies torture; it does not do that, at least not in the sense that the television series 24 did so. The film is ambiguous on the morality of torture but attentive viewers will notice that the terrorism suspects who are tortured generally fail to give useful information. It isn’t until those suspects are treated humanely or bribed that they provide leads. But because the torture scenes are so strong and because Zero Dark Thirty is so morally ambiguous, inattentive viewers may draw the conclusion that torture led to actionable intelligence, something known to be false. Zero Dark Thirty is running afoul of those who want to see torture methods unquestionably rebuked. Those viewers are not going to find what they are looking for in Zero Dark Thirty and it is unfair to hold the film to a standard or style that its makers never intended.
Bottom Line: Zero Dark Thirty is a considerable achievement of moviemaking. The film suffers from its shallowness but as an exercise in craft it is an extraordinary piece of cinema.
Episode: #423 (January 20, 2013)