Bring me the head of you-know-who: Zero Dark Thirty **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 5, 2013)

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Whadaya think…this is like the Army, where you can shoot ‘em from a mile away?! No, you gotta get up like this, and budda-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

–from The Godfather, screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola

If CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), the partially fictionalized protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty had her druthers, she would “drop a bomb” on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, as opposed to dispatching a Navy SEAL team with all their “…Velcro and gear.” Therein lays the crux of my dilemma regarding Kathryn Bigelow’s film recounting the 10-year hunt for the 9-11 mastermind and events surrounding his take down; I can’t decide if it’s “like the Army” or a glorified mob movie.

At any rate, by the time I reached the end of its exhausting 157 minutes, any vicarious feeling of “victory” (intended or otherwise) I may have experienced watching Maya’s (that is to say, “America’s”) long-sought quarry go down in a hail of bullets was Pyrrhic at best; the same curiously ambivalent reaction I had watching Hitler and Goebbels getting blown to bits by another all-‘Murcan hit team in Quentin Tarantino’s 2010 WW2 revenge fantasy, Inglourious Basterds (and neither film’s denouement made me feel, you know…patriotic). Or, as I wrote regarding this peculiarly post 9-11 form of Weltschmerz in my review of Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today, Stuart Schulberg’s 2011 doc about the Nazi war trials:

Unfortunately, humanity in general hasn’t learned too awful much [since 1946]; the semantics may have changed, but the behavior, sadly, remains the same […] “Crimes against humanity” are still perpetrated every day-so why haven’t we had any more Nurembergs? If it can’t be caught via cell phone camera and posted five minutes later on YouTube like Saddam Hussein’s execution, so we can take a quick peek, go “Yay! Justice is served!” and then get back to our busy schedule of eating stuffed-crust pizza and watching the Superbowl, I guess we just can’t be bothered. Besides, who wants to follow some boring 11-month long trial, anyway (unless an ex-football player is somehow involved).

But that’s just me. Perhaps Zero Dark Thirty is intended as a litmus test for its viewers (the cries of “Foul!” that have emitted from both poles of the political spectrum, even before its wide release this weekend would seem to bear this out). And indeed, Bigelow has nearly succeeded in making an objective, apolitical docudrama.

Notice that I say nearly. Here’s how she cheats. After opening with a powerfully affecting collage of now sadly familiar audio clips of horrified air traffic controllers, poignant answering machine adieus and heartbreaking exchanges between frustrated 911 operators and hapless World Trade Center office workers, Bigelow segues into those torture scenes you have undoubtedly heard about.

Tugging at our heartstrings to incite us to vengeful thoughts? That’s not playing fair. “Remember how terrible that day was?” she seems to be saying, “…so the ends justify the means, right? Anyone? Bueller?” The rub is that by most accounts, none of the intelligence instrumental to locating Bin Laden’s whereabouts was garnered via torture…unless the director knows something the rest of us don’t. That being said, the harrowing scenes (around 10 minutes of screen time) would not be out of place in a film about, say, Abu Ghraib (maybe Bigelow is making an oblique reference?).

However, if you can get past the fact that Bigelow or screenwriter Mark Boal are not ones to necessarily allow the truth to get in the way of a good story (and that The Battle of Algiers or The Day of the Jackal…this definitely ain’t), in terms of pure film making, there is an impressive amount of (if I may appropriate an oft-used phrase from the movie) cinematic “trade craft” on display.

While  lukewarm as a political thriller, it does make a terrific detective story, and the recreation of the SEAL mission, while up for debate as to accuracy (only those who were there could say for sure, and keeping mum on such escapades is kind of a major part of their job description) is quite taut and exciting.

Chastain compellingly inhabits her obsessive character, and there are excellent supporting performances from Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clark, Kyle Chandler and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s Mark Strong (who is becoming one of my favorite character actors). If this sounds like a mixed review-well, I suppose it is. But hey, I still support the troops!

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