‘Zero Dark Thirty’ big on action

Posted March 26, 2013


Politically themed art is a tricky subject.

We’re far enough removed from the times of “Lincoln” and “Django” (and arguably even “Argo”) that we can more easily step back and evaluate art as art, especially in the case of film, where the emphasis is less on making political statements than human ones.

Zero_Dark_ThirtyThat being said, I’ll try to stay away from that side of “Zero Dark Thirty” and focus on its cinematographic aspects rather than the political controversies surrounding it. Actually, you got me – I’m kind of a geek for the political stuff – but I’ll get to it later.

In fact, the movie’s screenwriter, Mark Boal and I share something in common in that way. Boal embedded as a journalist in Iraq with troops and bomb squads and wrote an article for Playboy magazine about his experience, which eventually turned into the screenplay for 2009’s “The Hurt Locker,” which he also wrote, and was also directed by “Zero” director Kathryn Bigelow.

Before that, Boal’s 2004 article about the murder of an Iraq veteran by fellow soldiers inspired writer/director Paul Haggis to fictionalize it for the film “In the Valley of Elah.” Sadly, “Zero” pales in comparison to both of those films. I think Boal’s brilliance comes out best when he’s writing about something only he knows about – his experience in Iraq, his investigation into the soldier’s murder. Everything in “Zero” is public knowledge and there’s not a whole lot of human substance to fill it out.

As with “Hurt Locker” and “Elah” I knew the essence of the movie’s plot before I got to the theater. In “Zero’s” case, months after the Sept. 11 attacks, George W. Bush said he was “not concerned” about Osama bin Laden and, while everyone else was busy forgetting about him, one dedicated CIA unit finally found him and took him out after nearly a decade.

And that’s really all you get with this movie. No, you don’t see the clip of President Bush and there’s only a fleeting glimpse of President Obama (in the context of the film’s protagonists wondering if the incoming administration might choose to prosecute them for the torture they used to extract “intelligence.”) Nevertheless, it’s a fun ride.

The casting department made a good call not choosing big headline names for the film, but Australian Jason Clarke was completely unconvincing with both his American accent (sorry, pet peeve) and his attempt at playing a CIA agent. His lengthy torture scenes at the film’s beginning show his chops as an actor, but it dehumanizes him for the rest of the film.

How are you supposed to relate to the dude who just strung a guy up, waterboarded him, beat him, deprived him of sleep by blaring heavy metal music in his cell for 96 hours straight, then stripped him naked in front of his female colleague, put a dog collar on him, and stuffed him into a tiny box? And for what? Information they eventually got by basically tricking the guy. Maybe they should have tried that first.

And yes, those things really happened. Of course, this is a dramatization, but the fact remains that Americans really did these sorts of things and it raises a huge ethical question that the movie totally fails to address. Ostensibly, the assumption the audience is supposed to make is that the characters didn’t think twice about it – they were doing it to save lives and fight the bad guys and that was the end of it.

But that’s not the point. The point is that as I watched it, I felt sick – and I’m not squeamish about movies. I’ve seen some of the “Saw” films and nearly all of Tarantino’s gory oeuvre with no problems – and it wasn’t even the fact that it was “based on a true story.”

Jessica Chastain’s character – Maya, the heroine who by force of will overcomes all the obstacles in her path to finding and taking out bin Laden – grimaces a few times, but 20 minutes later, she’s putting on a wig and grilling the subjects herself.

There’s no indication of these characters grappling with their consciences, but that’s exactly what it leaves the audience doing. I sat there wondering how on earth “America,” a country with freedom from “cruel and unusual punishment” enshrined in its constitution, could ever sanction such cruel mistreatment of human beings.

Then I remembered all of the other atrocities our government has perpetrated in the course of its history and I realized that it’s not the job of Boal, or Bigelow, or Clark or Chastain to make us address that issue as a culture and as a society, but they should at least have made their characters address it.

At the end of the film, Chastain’s character cries – the only other scene where she does so is after the death of her friend and co-worker in the Camp Chapman suicide attack – but it didn’t quite fit. Her mission, at work and in her life, was to hunt down bin Laden and she’s finally succeeded.

Supposedly she was motivated by patriotism and a (not unhealthy) desire for revenge, but about halfway through the story I began to wonder if she might simply be trying to justify the fact that her pursuit had turned her into something of a monster. Then again, maybe that’s why she was crying.

I don’t think this lack of humanity was necessarily the actor’s fault. Don’t get me wrong, “Zero” is a hell of a movie. Yes, it’s long (clocking in at 157 minutes), but if you take power naps through the scenes where Boal and Bigelow try to add in some Oliver Stone-style gravitas with CIA jargon and operational planning details (irrelevant to the plot, since we’re going to see it anyway), it’s fast-paced and fun to watch.

In addition to the whole “torture” question, “Zero” generally sidesteps the politics and attempts to focus on the drama. The scene of the raid on bin Laden’s compound is brilliantly intense, and there’s plenty of explosive action and dialogue throughout. It won an Academy Award for “sound editing,” which is apparently an actual category – an honor it shared with “Skyfall.”

Still, there’s not a lot of comic relief. I counted maybe four or five laugh lines in the whole two and a half hours. More importantly, none of the characters seem to feel much of anything other than goal-oriented resolve.

The final scene shows Chastain’s character weeping after identifying bin Laden’s corpse, but as I said before, it just doesn’t fit. Even her tears over her friend’s death seem out of place, considering that her moment grief is interrupted (apparently for the rest of the movie) as soon as a new lead falls on her desk. It seems like this is a lame 11th-hour attempt to salvage some sympathy for her character, but it’s much too little, much too late.

Obviously, the actual people these roles were based on were not available for comment and I think this goes back to my point about Boal’s writing. He has to get close to his subjects and feel what they feel. He’s done that before and some great films have come out of it, but this just isn’t one of those cases. It’s based mostly on stuff any foreign policy nerd could tell you and the characters (who rarely use names at all other than those of the “terrorists”) are flat – not boring, just kind of robotic.

To sum it up, it’s big on action, long on wonky CIA inside baseball, and short on compelling emotions. The flash-bang aspect makes it fun to see in the theater, but I’d wait for the DVD so you can skip to the good parts – unless you have two and a half hours to waste.

  • Title: “Zero Dark Thirty”
  • Director: Kathryn Bigelow
  • Screenwriter: Mark Boal
  • Released: Dec. 19, 2012
  • Runtime: 157 minutes
  • Studio: Annapurna Pictures
  • Distributer: Columbia Pictures