Zero Dark Thirty (review)

MaryAnn’s quick take: If only this were a wholly fictional story, I could get behind it 100 percent, instead of the 95 percent I can give.
I’m “biast” (pro): loved Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Too soon? Too soon for a kickass political action movie about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden? It’s been less than two years since a black-ops team of elite American soldiers executed the purported mastermind of 9/11… without any sort of due process… on the sovereign soil of another nation. Or maybe it’s not too soon, because while there were some twitters of discontent back in the spring of 2011 about how extralegal the whole shebang was, hardly anyone today seems to be in the least bit perturbed by any of it. Go America!

Could be I’m trending a tad toward the unfair to Zero Dark Thirty for being more nuanced than the American public personality tends to be. But the absence of even the smallest, teensiest, most tepid sort of criticism about all the Not Very Nice things America did along the way to killing Bin Laden, right up to actually killing him the way it did, bothers the law-abiding moralist in me. I don’t need a moralistic movie per se. But I might have liked just the briefest line of dialogue here in which someone — anyone — questions the right of the United States to infiltrate an ally nation such as Pakistan on nothing more than our own ballsy say-so, never mind what the Pakistanis might think about it. You know, just for a moment before it gets dismissed by all the gung-ho rah-rah Americans. I might have liked just the quickest nod to a hint of an appreciation for the fact that it’s precisely the sort of disregard for the rule of international law or human rights that makes so many people around the world angry at the US.

Yeah yeah yeah: Bin Laden — or whoever was behind 9/11 — had no regard for the rule of international law or human rights either. But he was the bad guy, right? We’re supposed to be the good guys, aren’t we?

If only this were a wholly fictional story, with none of the baggage of real life weighing it down, I could probably get behind it 100 percent, instead of the “mere” 95 percent I can give. Because director Kathryn Bigelow, reuniting with her Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal, has created an awesomely engaging investigative procedural featuring perhaps the most fearsome female protagonist ever. Jessica Chastain (Lawless, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted) is immensely tough and gratifying and uncomfortable and astonishing as Maya, a CIA operative who is as intelligent, as driven, as aggressive, as singleminded as any man is every allowed to be in The Movies, and with no subsequent Hollywood-style punishment for it. (She doesn’t break up with a boyfriend who accuses her of being more interested in Bin Laden that she is in him!) Well, yes, there is the suggestion that, in the end, the successful conclusion to her hunt for the world’s most wanted man — spoiler! she gets him! — is less than fully satisfying for her, but that’s fine. More than fine: it’s the best the film has to offer by way of saying that the cost of the hunt might have been more than it was worth.

It’s true, too, that the film is blunt about those costs without being exploitive about them. There are scenes of torture here, of an Al Qaeda detainee in a “black site” at an “undisclosed location,” that do not pretend that there is anything enjoyable about it for those dishing it out (including the spectacularly good Jason Clarke [Lawless, Trust] as a CIA colleague of Maya’s who makes sporadic appearances). Yet there is also the hint that, all evidence to the contrary aside — we know that torture is not an effective method of interrogation — torture produced actionable intelligence in the hunt for Bin Laden. There is implied criticism of President Obama’s public determination to end US torture. And too little of made of the impact witnessing the torture has on Maya: while we see later that it gets easier for her to swallow her disgust at such methods, most of the emotional reality of being a human being participating in the unpleasant actions that were required — or at least depicted here as required — to find Bin Laden is avoided.

Still, there are movie-movie pleasures here, even if they sit alongside awkward realities. A visit to Area 51? Whoa. An appearance by Torchwood’s John Barrowman, even if it is only two lines in one scene? Cool. If only there were some love for that Pakistani guy on Twitter who inadvertently let that nighttime get-Bin Laden-raid cat out of the bag…

Maybe Zero Dark Thirty is too soon. Too soon for us to look at this film as pure art, pure entertainment, as separate from its inevitable sociopolitical implications. But right now, this feels just a little bit more propagandistic — ain’t American awesome?! — than I’m completely comfortable with.

Listen to me discuss Zero Dark Thirty in a January 2022 guest appearance on the podcast SpyHards.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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