‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Review
Brian Paul Bach
(This review appears as Appendix IV in my latest book, 'Busted Boom: The Bummer Of Being A Boomer')
(This review appears as Appendix IV in my latest book, 'Busted Boom: The Bummer Of Being A Boomer')
A Mere Episode of ‘Prime Suspect’ or, The Salome of the CIA
(A few minor SPOILERS included)
The film considered below would have you think that it is far more important than it really is. It is way too cool for its own good. Cold as ice, and just as barren. You the viewer are supposed to be just as cool, especially after all we as a nation have been through. Being totally hip and aware, we’re supposed to think that the stripped-to-the-bone scenes to come are the only possible way to tell this story.
To employ a term coined by film critic Andrew Sarris, Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (aka ‘ZDT’) is a very acute example of ‘strained seriousness’. However, I would agree with Michael Moore that its’ chief virtue is that it is a film made by women to show men how women aren’t taken very seriously – by men. Mark Boal scripted, but his gender hardly matters.
Any criticism aimed at ‘ZDT’ will be deflected in any number of ways, especially under the ‘that’s not what the filmmakers intended’ umbrella. Nevertheless, I’ll aim a few bits of commentary at this controversial piece of cinema, that is in itself very much worthy of discussion.
I had wanted to perhaps respect this film as a hopefully courageous and innovative portrayal of a controversial sequence in recent American history, but instead it’s just a docudrama semi-worthy of, maybe, the History Channel (as in, just because it’s on the History Channel doesn’t mean it’s true…) or most likely, just another episode of the terminally-bleak ‘Prime Suspect’.
First off: to get the tech side out of the way, it’s all very competently done, though Bigelow is no more a stylist than your basic documentary filmmaker at work today. Jeremy Hindle’s production design is top-notch. India passes well as Pakistan – a Punjab is a Punjab is a Punjab. Goofs exist, of course, but let’s not split hairs. The score by Alexandre Desplat is predictably spare, but is nevertheless allowed to be the only readily identifiable humanistic element in the production. He employs a weepily mournful theme that to me makes its own commentary: this is a sad film – a very, very sad film. Its players are sad, its deeds are sad, and its execution is very, very sad.
We know why. 9/11, of course, but ‘ZDT’ is 9/11’s comfort-zone sarcophagus, not its explanation. There is little that is helpful here, except, as Michael Moore implied, to demonstrate the instinct and insight of (certain) women. That’s certainly sufficient justification for a film’s possibilities. With supreme taste, this particular film does not stoop to showing clichéd icons of the disaster. The audience is given infinite credit. After all, our mythos is well established. The epic of our race is too well known to flog here. For truly mature audiences only.
Second: no, I don’t think the film advocates torture. The drum it beats is one person’s ‘Listen to me!’ insistence, and the torture sequences have been generated as mere gratuitous atmospherics. I mean, if you’re going to hunt for a superstar outlaw on film, you’ve gotta get down ‘n dirty, right? Even Jesus got the same requisite cinematic realism in ‘The Passion of the Christ’ so why shouldn’t these ‘evil ones’? Actually, the one guy they show getting tortured is a pale-eyed quasi-Arabish person (Turkic? Circassian??) instead of a Fox News-ready cliché. Why? To ‘de-Arab’ the suspect perhaps – a sign of sensitivity? That’s kind of like George W. Bush saying ‘Islam is a religion of peace’, but you know all the time he doesn’t believe it for a second. That is, if he’d even known what he was talking about.
Torture-wise, ‘ZDT’ certainly utilizes its theatricality to further its otherwise tepid drama. The ball-busting of Bond in ‘Casino Royale’ was more harrowing, but I guess that was an insolent comic book comparison. Any modern horror pic makes ‘ZDT’ look like an Easter pageant. But this is supposed to be ‘real’, because that’s what it says at the beginning of the film, right?
Neocons of the Cheneyite variety will surely be satisfied with the torture depiction. It should scare off any evildoers, from now until the Second Coming. If that’s what it takes to keep the Homeland safe, what’s a little teasing with water sports if it’ll save billions (dollars, not necessarily lives…)? To paraphrase the infinitely wise Tom Friedman, all we as a nation have to say to those ‘who would do us harm’ is, ‘Suck on this!!’
Third: I know I can look it up on the Net, but I’m afraid the dialogue was too sophisticated for me to grasp where the ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ code fits in, though the usage of ‘UBL’ in the academically-correct Romanization of ‘Usama bin Laden’ rather than ‘Osama’ is duly noted. I trust the Obama Administration might wish that the former spelling had been more universally adopted.
There’s no mandate that this is the ultimate ‘get bin Laden!’ film. It’s just one version. In fact, it won’t get in the way of any subsequent Nicolas Cage-Jason Statham-Chuck Norris-Arnie-(his big comeback!)-Stallone-Jamie Fox version at all. Hopefully any ultimate telling won’t be created by any Americans. Anyone but Americans. Indeed, one of ‘ZDT’s chief faults is its tedious Amerocentricness, as if it is ‘our’ tale, and ours alone. Could an Iranian director do it? One from Angola? Venezuela? Of course. So much documentary material exists, it would be as possible as staging ‘King Lear’ in Pyongyang.
In more platitudinal terms, ‘ZDT’ is soulless, absent, cold, and detached – though not aloof – to the point of no return. To reiterate, this is not a very important film. It’s not a very important story, really. The real important story is why al Qaeda came into being in the first place, their goal of usurping the Saudi royal family, and their original complaints about the US, which supports said royal rulers. Where are the filmmakers to tell that story?
Despite ‘ZDT’s turbo-sober realism, objective it ain’t, because it is so specific in its concerns. Scarcely any context is observed. The opening sounds of 9/11 are all that matter, and anyone who wants more can just go somewhere else. Fine, but that just makes ‘ZDT’ a ‘Prime Suspect’ episode, not ‘the manhunt of the century’, Besides, the century has just begun.
Two interesting points of cinematic technique are telling right as the film commences. They are perhaps only noticeable by film enthusiasts, but hear me out, please. Past the solemn but stately Columbia Pictures Lady, standing in front of her glorious Maxfield Parrish clouds, we next encounter the Annapurna Pictures logo, which is a kind of ‘dying video’ device, starting in darkness and ending in entropy. Perfect for the hopeless, comfortless tale to come. (Annapurna being one of Earth’s mightiest mountains, and most difficult to climb – symbolic, or maybe it’s just that Bigelow successfully summited.) Anyway, the tone it sets will be unrelieved for the next 157 minutes. If I ran the circus, I would’ve convinced the Columbia suits to mute those cheerful cloud colors a bit…
OK, so be it, I’m up for a somber, hard-hitting filmic experience. Everything after ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ (1962) is gravy to me.
This is supposed to be a very ‘high-level’ film, but in many ways it is naïve at best and downright preposterous at worst. Therefore, do not take it seriously, if you take it at all. You WILL take it seriously though, because of the overwhelmingly serious tone to the film. That is its package, its birthright, its entitlement, and you will accept it – preferably without question. Open-minded the film is not, either, as that’s hardly its purpose. Propaganda? Certainly. Fascist cinema? I don’t know - yet. America’s version of fascism is shaping up to be an oddball admixture of the outrageous and the perfectly acceptable. As Cokie Roberts always says, ‘We’ll just have to wait and see…’
Jessica Chastain is a worthy actress, as I’m sure all would agree, but her manipulation by the filmmakers as the key player in this film is pure schmaltz in action. Her ‘significant pallor’ and carrot-top ‘hair always on fire’ symbolism makes her into a tough little Nordic valkyrie-ette, whose righteous virtue will protect us from, and have its holy revenge on, all those horrible brown people out there. At least that’s how she starts out. But she morphs into something else, which can only be considered down the line.
‘Prime Suspect’s Helen Mirren, a great actress, would’ve been perfect for the role. Who cares about the age factor. But I’d also go with Gabourey Sidibe as well. Talk about a character that we could then be genuinely convinced as not being taken seriously by CIA dudes. But I guess the chances that some young African-American woman being brilliant enough to save the day as compared to some white chick in a White House-monitored film wouldn’t be too terribly great, would they?
You can almost feel sorry for Chastain for being plopped in the old Jodie Foster-type role of sacrificial chicken, in order to prove a point: America’s righteousness in enacting such defective detective tactics as tracking down killers, and engaging such imperialistic techniques as torture to achieve desired ends. Seen from that perspective, the desired outcome via any ‘necessary means’ scenario seems realistic and even reasonable.
Women of sensibility and intelligence will no doubt be taken in by the lead character, aside from all her attendant drama, but remember, this is a work of fiction, but despite the self-proclaimed nonfiction premise, we don’t know a thing about the real person whom the lead character is based on, or what they were like or looked like. Nor are we likely to. This is a big bucks movie (at $40 mil, not really, but…), and the makers are in it for the profit and the splash. Indeed, be glad of the film’s gender-based statements, but beware of the attendant propaganda: that spunky women can be tools for larger, more sinister powers in search of new, revised, and more seductive images so as to solidify their power. Sort of like the GOP wooing Hispanics.
Nothing wrong with a spunky, diminutive heroine who wants to be taken seriously. ‘ZDT’ would have you think they have invented the genre for your belated consideration. Mary Pickford in ‘Tess of the Storm Country’ (1922) was way more spunky. Judy Garland in ‘A Star Is Born’ (1954) was stronger and more grounded. The girl in ‘Kick-Ass’ (2010) was tougher (and more amusing). And Jennifer Jones in ‘The Song of Bernadette’ (1943) was far nobler and more admirable. And Stieg Larsson’s tattooed-pyro-hornet-kicking girls wrote the book on modern (and righteous!) badass spunkiness. Countless other examples exist.
The thing is, Chastain’s character, ‘Maya’ (known only as ‘Maya’; an inside joke at the now-forgotten Mayan calendar gobbledygook??) would have us think that she is the sole voice in the wilderness concerning this bin Laden fellow, whom we’ve all known since way back in the Soviet invasion days – when Maya was in her crib. Never mind the urgent warning that Condi & Co. pooh-poohed, or Richard Clarke’s existence, or the conflicts between intelligence agencies. Or other nations’ findings. Or a few other facts & factors (easily accessed online).
Maya turns out to be a spoiled and snotty would-be martyr. Not in the physical sense – others will fill that role, but as an entitled waif. We don’t know if she has a personal stake in 9/11 or not, but I guess we should imagine she does. Because, really, what’s her motivation? Maybe if you want to be a star in the CIA you don’t need to have one – or else that’s it in itself. She’s pretty big on showing that she doesn’t have one ounce of soul, even after she loses co-workers (whom she didn’t even like; Maya doesn’t seem to like anybody). Oh, she’s stunned, but she’s always stunned. Maybe the filmmakers are making a statement about typical American self-absorbent narcissism. Within the CIA, that could be a problem. At any rate, she throws down a pretty big gauntlet when she haughtily demands that others should kill bin Laden for her and her alone. I’ve heard talk like that before – a couple millennia ago…
To interrupt for just a second - because Michele’s bangs were the talk of the recent Inauguration, what about Maya’s tactically-tinted locks? She can do allegedly-amazing detective work, but she can’t seem to administer them properly. Possibly because she’s so preoccupied. Nerds are expected to have bad hair years. The redheaded disarray is very important, as a signal to any evildoers that they’d better watch out, and as a sub-sexual innuendo that this Maya person is really sensual underneath, but it’s just that she’s so dedicated to her mission that her hairstyle is as germane as, say, Joan of Arc’s. It is also a symbol of her virtue – or maybe ‘frigidity’. But do we really want to delve into this rather non-intriguing character? Maya’s rival, Jessica (played by Jennifer Ehle) is much more interesting (though somewhat annoying), and even though she’s doing similarly gritty work, her own hair is under control at all times – and very stylish, too. Maybe it’s her love of wine that keeps her together. She gets blown up though, even after sincerely baking a cake.
No doubt woman viewers will analyze the hair thing with more mature perspectives, but only at their peril in respect for what Maya is all about: a sincere warrior in the midst of bozos. You gotta admire a person who hasn’t time to keep track of their hair if they’ve got more important things to do. But the hair thing is very distracting to the story. Any CIA woman with any sense wouldn’t futz with such hair. They’d be practical first, and attend to Asperger’s demands second. Get a haircut that works, stupid!
To our relief, Maya’s hair is on best behavior when it’s under wig or scarf control, let alone when she has to undertake the awesome and onerous task of shouldering a burqa for God and country. Fortunately, she has the proper facial lips to satisfy the corporate suits in order to get a degree of sexuality in under the wire. It’s strange that the CIA wouldn’t recognize these attributes, as they’re more than enough to satisfy the audience’s needs.
OK, enough about style without substance. So what if a complex story had to be dumbed down and sexed up for American audiences to digest, but more background could’ve been implied rather than smugly excluded. But if a whole ‘get bin Laden’ enterprise is primarily peopled by apparent Gen-X’ers who can act bratty and snotty with each other while the world’s superpower embarks on imperial wars, as this film suggests, I suppose this might be the outcome. Our best and brightest in action. And there’s even a supervisor in a darkened office who’s a Muslim! He’s caught red-handed on his prayer rug, and you can just tell that everyone thinks he’s suspicious as hell. This potentially intriguing thread is abandoned, and we have to go back to the tedious UBL thing. No wonder Dubya and his sagacious geniuses like Don Rumsfeld became bored with the chase!
When Maya is referred to as a ‘killer’, what is it, exactly, that she’s killed? No snarky answer needed here; we just don’t know, and we can’t sensibly guess, either. We’ll just have to trust that she’s an exceptional being. I assume she aced all her language courses. We wait and wait to see evidence of her magic powers, but the only overt one is that she’s pretty kick-butt with an erasable magic marker.
Her subsequent behavior reveals that she could’ve gotten a lot further with people if she’d just bothered to learn a few simple schmooze techniques - a total hassle, I know…. But any school psychologist would take one look at Maya and say, ‘Oh, she’s Asperger’s’, or at the very least, ‘She’s like, autistic’. Duh! Such a socially challenged person is gonna have some communication problems.
Even Maya’s self-righteous snottiness could have been effective if Bigelow and Boal had given her more of a chance. Instead she gets to whip out powerhouse lines at a torture victim like ‘You should be more truthful’, and gets to jot down some names on a notepad while passively witnessing her psycho torturer buddy in action. And her assessment of Pakistan as ‘fucked’ is supposed to be authoritative, definitive. Pity she missed out on the Mughal gardens at Shahdara, the Red Fort in Lahore, and the hill station of Murree. Or any of the Pakistani people in between. Believe it or not, they have kindly grandmas and persons interested in morals all over the place.
Autistic people can get help – even ones in the CIA, you know. Surely a program exists.
Indeed, there’s a bit of Chester the Terrier in Maya. You know, that little persistent dog that’s always yipping around big Spike the Bulldog in those wonderful Warner Bros. cartoons. The little dog is always told to ‘Shaddap!’, but he triumphs in the end. Thing is, the cartoon characters are lovable. Lonely savior Maya is not.
OK, she doesn’t have to be, shouldn’t be. Fine. In fact, as her obsession gains momentum, she will be a virtual Salome, and her dancing around the subject will have its eventual reward. It’s too bad the story’s so hackneyed.
Of course, Bigelow & Co. may be posing all this American dumbshit behavior for us to grind through in order for us to contrast the on-screen depictions with other aspects that we know to be true. Such as, bin Laden’s basic irrelevance, his controversial position as a former collaborator with the Americans, the larger issue of the surrounding wars, the lack of hard evidence that bin Laden himself masterminded the 9/11 attacks, the actions of the US outside the rule of law, the neocon agendas of economic dominance, the containment of Iran (another vengeance trip that has yet to be executed with extreme prejudice), the disregard for human life in said warzones, their very illegality, etc. etc. But the film is outrageously lacking in coherent commentary on any of these points. It chickens out of posing any morality questions other than the generic premise of 9/11. The closest it gets to a cogent statement is that the Americans in the CIA industry in Pakistan are basically callous, unpleasant people, just what I figured they were – and have for over a decade now.
If a film is as detached as ‘ZDT’ is, all well and good. It’s just that it should therefore not be regarded with much respect or value.
But why not switch the channel to a documentary, instead? Even the most prejudicial, half-baked CNN bin Laden profile is preferable to this full-of-holes narration. Just because it’s got concise location titles and chronological notes to guide us through, that’s about the only documentarian technique in play. The rest is TV-episode melodrama. At least the assembly-line documentaries made for cable filler are more accountable for their standpoints than this flaky, noncommittal ‘ZDT’ is. ‘ZDT’ attempts to acquit itself at the beginning by saying it is based on reality. Again, I agree with Michael Moore when he says he wishes these filmmakers would skip the ‘this is a true story’ deception. It just sets up a realism-addicted audience to think that this is mostly truth under the convenience of ostensible fiction. But ‘ZDT’ is historical fiction, nothing more. It is also vacuous historical fiction, a genre all its own.
On the plus side, several sequences have a surprising amount of character development, and most scenes are played out with a welcome degree of patience. Video game techniques are banned. I’m not sure what that’ll do to box office, though.
Granted, there is much that is dysfunctional in Pakistan today, but in ‘ZDT’, that name is bandied about rather, shall we say, recklessly. Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, even Iran get off easily in this film, but ol’ Pak gets to be the whipping boy. If you’re going to dive into this region though, you’d better have a big picture in mind. But the singleness of purpose in this film relegates the region to cardboard inconsequence. It might just as well be taking place in eastern Montana and southwestern Alberta.
Ms. Chastain gets a chance (at last) to verbalize some of her pent-up frustrations at her boss, and if we can forget content for a second, her actual acting ability in having such an outburst is given showcasing in an otherwise terminally timid film. She really delivers in this blow-out scene (kept maddeningly brief, lest it be branded ‘over the top’ by hyper-sophisticated audiences), and she’s good – at last. But it’s only a few sentences of punch. Wait until she wails, ‘You don’t KNOW Pakistan!’ and suddenly it’s smirk-laugh time for we, the witnesses. As people stationed in a region with a 5000+ year history, WHO knows Pakistan? Apparently, it’s only some punk who, by the way, thinks it’s ‘fucked’. But after all, this is a scene between Americans in a region they obviously can’t possibly understand, so maybe this is Bigelow & Co. at their most subtle. Why not be charitable? Perhaps it’s a little more commentary on how detached Americans are, even though they’re smack dab (in 5-star lodging – OK, 2-star) in a land they hate. I don’t think there’s any such finesse is intended, though. The gold standard in this respect was set by the estimable Paul Wolfowitz (few remember his calumnies these days, but I still do!), who claimed before the Iraq War that there were no significant sacred sites in Iraq to damage. This preference for voluntary and offensive ignorance in regional realities reaches its tawdry apotheosis when Maya claims, with a straight face, that ‘SUVs are rare in Pakistan’. Funny, I could have sworn I saw quite a few (e.g. Toyota, Isuzu, etc.) when I was in Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Peshawar, and points in between. Back in 1991, no less. Perhaps Maya’s authoritative observation was based on the view from her US Embassy office.
For being such a linguistic whizz-kid, it’s curious that Maya pronounces ‘Peshawar’ as ‘PESH-a-wawr’ and not ‘Peh-SHAW-waar’, and ‘Abbottabad’ as ‘Uh-BOTTA-bad’ instead of ‘OBBOTT-i-bad’, but maybe that’s just the filmmakers’ realism in play again, especially coming from Americans who don’t give a damn about the country hosting them, and indeed have contempt for it. Americans are frequently out of their league in regions in which they have no legitimate business.
I’m grasping at benefits of doubt here, but Bigelow & Co. are becoming increasingly impossible to have faith in.
Because of the film’s timidity in giving us a workable perspective on the characters involved, their sincerity or cynicism is just another bit of guesswork we have to indulge in. Or else we should have been more prepared in our hipness in dealing with the film’s obvious ‘sophistication’. That’s just one more aspect of how sad this film is, and how pathetic the whole mess that surrounds it is. I mean, if that’s what you have to do to make this thing work, let’s just scrap it and start over.
Despite its zealous attempts not to appear so, ‘ZDT’ is pretentious as hell. The more lean and mean it is, the more blatant its message: stripped to (boring) simplicity, all that matters is that one person’s obsession should be attended to; the icon representing ‘evil’ must and shall be eliminated, and by so doing, case closed, and the one person shall be proven as having been right. As with American culture today, no inference to egotism is given a chance to survive as motivator to the characters.
Because, in our culture, two mandates in one’s personality have become the main elements in one’s identity when interacting with other humans: to always be right, and to assign blame. And the mandates extend further: always be right – or appear to be, and know where to assign blame. One’s own ass is all that matters.
James Gandolfini, as the Leon Panetta-ish CIA head, is utterly wasted. After the famous ‘mf-bomb’ scene, the CIA head checks out Maya in humble cafeteria surroundings. After she’s snotty to his overtures, we’re all set up for what might have been an extremely important scene, but CUT! (Cool trivia: there is a ‘Gandalf’ joke earlier in the film; obscure, but noteworthy.)
This picture is so piss-poor in reflecting on consequences concerning every other aspect of its’ subject, I don’t think any such capability could occur. The filmmakers aren’t talented enough. To persist in hoping for other subjective currents, it’s possible that the film’s exclusivity of purpose could be construed as a veiled commentary on (late) American Empire behavior, but there’s so little to evidence in that respect. To be generous, there’s the possibility that the filmmakers couldn’t go too far in that respect though, perhaps in peril of their very lives. Certain forces, not limited to the White House but still in this country, would be very touchy about how a controversial subject shall be cinematically revealed. Stranger things have been known to exist in this world.
Sure, the explosion of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad is pulled off with sufficient jolting impact (as is the attack on Maya’s personal car, in order to sex up the pre-third act), but the foreheads of the American gals could have at least been lightly cut, or smudged or something. In typical self-important style though, they don’t help any of the shadowy figures with blown-off femurs or tibia or anything. They just get out as fast as possible, cuz they’ve got hyper-important stuff to do, and all. Even in a terrorist inferno, starry white chicks shall be privileged and protected.
So, could ‘ZDT’ not be a feminist film? The Columbia Pictures Lady, director, producers, lead actors, many of the crew are women. Yet when Maya sees her boys off to war, she becomes the good little anxious war bride, and you get the feeling that she’s perfectly happy to have the guys do the dirty work that she facilitated – I guess.
Speaking of the Gandolfini character, when she is in a meeting with him and other operatives, Maya achieves legendary/awesome status in a flash – not via feminist genius, but by macho verbal crudeness. Her timing is keen though. She does not shirk from using the ‘m-f’ word, so beloved of CIA folks, in getting the attention she so deserves. Works like a charm. I guess that’s what a gal has to do in such circumstances.
Amongst these dreary personages, one can easily end up sympathizing not only with the tortured ones, but also the CIA dude inside the glass office that one particularly huffy person scrawls a number on every day for about three months. Never mind that there was, in the meantime, a good deal of checking and follow-up going on to, uh, make sure that this important agent’s most treasured want is, you know, sort of credible.
The actual mission to assassinate UBL himself, without putting other options ‘on the table’, as they say, was suspect from the start, and remains so to the present day. It’s like the JFK assassination as far as murkiness is concerned – it really is. Too many other possibilities and Rumsfeldian ‘known unknowns’ exist for we peasants to simply accept what the overlords announce, but that’s a much wider issue than this extremely narrow film can possibly take on.
As far as ‘ZDT’s handling of the climaxing mission itself, the green-lighting (literally) to go get the ‘bad guy’ is finally upon us. But the grandeur of the final act is sacrificed to what we already know: they ‘got him’. I mean, from what I read in a recent ‘Vanity Fair’ article, (‘The Hunt For ‘Geronimo’’ by Mark Bowden, November, 2012), I could have staged the mission with inflatable toys in front of my camcorder, as that was the boilerplate progression as depicted in ‘ZDF’. No surprises, it’s just a process of getting the thing told on screen. There’s more tension to be found in the old Richard Burton-Clint Eastwood thriller ‘Where Eagles Dare’ (1969) than this dutiful, completist filmization by those who are new to the story. It’s all very realistic and efficient in its depiction, of course, so as not to grandstand the mission’s sacredness too much. The one thing the filmmakers seem most paranoid about is that someone might say that the film is ‘over the top’, which it certainly is not (whatever ‘the top’ really means). We know Bruce Willis isn’t gonna show up, though we could certainly use him and his wisecracks.
Once we’re enroute, we can all simmer down and watch the clockwork. These are SEALs, after all, though they’re jauntily referred to as ‘Canaries’ (sounds ‘gay’!). The sense of nighttime is effectively accomplished as the magic choppers navigate the gloom. On the ground, it’s all ‘Mission: Impossible’ - not the Tom Cruise vehicles, but the old CBS series – albeit with more greenish violence. (Cool trivial nuance: green is a color particularly revered by Muslims; a commentary??) The door-busters reminded me of ‘The Wild Wild West’ TV series, though I missed any Artemus Gordon-style levity that hadn’t any chance whatsoever in the midst of all the gravitas.
Well, there’s a brief iPod joke enroute and a bit of crowing on completion, but personality-wise, I was most interested in the dog that came along (Bowdon’s article reveals why they had a dog in the first place, but the film doesn’t let on). People usually respond to animals being placed in the midst of intense human activity, and their promise as entities to care about is palpable, especially when surrounded by such anti-personalities as these SEALs. I’m just a dog lover, is all, and I know that the dog in question makes it through OK with all the others, so it’s a minor deal…
As to be expected, the activity of the mission can only be expressed in limited ways on the screen. An intuitive, multi-approach video game, when it appears, if it hasn’t already, will be far more effective. Film-ish stuff is so old fashioned in that respect, and even quaint.
Anyway, there’s that huge chopper explosion only a mile away from the Pak military academy. Really! (Apparently CIA shuns the metric system.) Yet, the only ones who show up for the fireworks are some ‘hood types comin’ down the lane for a ‘wassup?’ Once again, an almost dainty discretion comes into play. There is no reference of even a possibility that the Pak military (might have covertly) allowed the mission to take place - that would be an out-and-out implication! - then had the civility to give the raiders some lead time before appearing active with a bit of scrambling. The latter is definitely a reason why the SEALs (and pup) should get their collective ass in gear. In this region, hospitality may be duly extended to one’s enemies – but only as long as they’re gone by morning. No Pak F-16s ever appear on the horizon, though. Thus, the mission is reduced to ‘24’ banality, as if there were and are no repercussions or meanings. Well, in real life, there are evidently few of the former, though many of the latter surely exist, the least of which is probably more America-hate in the region than ever, and growth in al Qaeda membership and development. Of course, back in the Homeland, who cares about pissing off far away beard-wearers. Ben Bernanke may be bearded, but nobody made him do so.
These raiders of a lost icon use the same techniques as your basic mafia-powered assassination squad. They’re better equipped of course, and have imperial charters, but the go-get-‘em team spirit of ‘The Seven Samurai’ (1954) and countless other enter-and-execute-with-extreme-prejudice sagas is present, but without any soulfulness whatsoever. If anything, it’s almost a snooze. Even the chopper smash-up (thermal-caused; the characteristic heat of the season at c.4000ft elevation is not mentioned) seems a routine tension-builder. And as we find out, apparently it would’ve been fairly easy to throw a butterfly net over the UBL suspect and reel him in with as much efficiency as we are applying to a wimpy Bradley Manning. One of his poor wives seemed far more challenging than anyone else for the SEALs, who are gentlemen only up to a certain point.
We know there’s going to be a tad bit of collateral tragedy here, what with UBL’s entourage in full assault weapon range. Yes, Americans on such a mission probably would say ‘It’s OK!’ to kids after blowing away their parents in their presence, especially when said parents could have been, should have been, captured and tried so as to show the world that America wasn’t yet so far in decline that it had to bump off its prime suspect before they are allowed to come under the much-vaunted ‘rule of law’. Indeed, the US has had much more cooperation with bin Laden & Co. than conflict. But it would look mighty fishy to an appalled public, if he’d been allowed to squawk at trial. Saddam wasn’t a problem in that respect, but just think of what UBL could’ve spilled. Very embarrassing – more than any old dribbly Wikileak. So, just take him out, OK? Or else, yes, do indeed capture him alive for future purposes; we’ll just create a convenient legend to cover it all up…
In real life, the raid was primarily a trophy gesture. The Israelis probably could have done it in their sleep (remember Entebbe?). Plus, after the ‘Whirlwind’ flop of trying to get the hostages out of Iran in 1980, the Americans weren’t rated very highly in the rescue effort department (missions of mercy excepted). Nevertheless, even though it took over 30 years to redeem themselves, a whole new generation popped Geronimo (a dubious reference to that rather heroic chief of yore) with scarcely a scratch, though that lost chopper, which left lots of forensics for the Paks to explore despite the demolition, was a pretty big ticket item.
The filmmakers apparently have a disdain about follow-up. Quite frankly, I expected at least a few sentences of text at the end. You know, maybe some stuff about the effects of said mission, what happened to the survivors, the swag, the body in the bag, the DNA results, or even UBL’s compound. Nope. All we get is clichéd black-screen in which to pause and reflect on how devastated we are by the late film’s utter power, before the magisterial directorial credit emerges – itself a textual image of pretentious restraint. Oh, but they weren’t wanting to commit themselves to any standpoint, even though by doing so, they were making a huge statement. That is, we don’t care about those kids in the compound, or the other survivors, or anything but one woman’s tear. That is all ye need to know.
All right then, we know this film isn’t going to take on the whole ball ‘o wax that its pretentiousness would have you think is the case. Thank heavens for that. As a filmic document, it is flimsy and evanescent. A few piquant moments exist. The torture victim’s crumply cuddling with his newly-beloved plastic bottle of mango(?) juice. The old Subaru wagon that carries the death-dealing suicide bombers, and its roostertail of dust. (Actually, Subarus are very rare in the region… Just kidding.) The monkey and the ice cream cone. The seminal close-up that reveals how plumped Maya’s upper lip is… There are others, oh yes, others… But ‘ZDT’s very superfluity - which I thought was supposed to keep it free of baggage - proves to be a backfire. For its’ lack of substance and commitment, not to mention conscience, shall ensure its dissolution in elements more truthful than this fluffball diversion.
Because ‘ZDT’ is so reactionary, so unoriginal in its stance, it may be considered a failure, though it is no fiasco. Yet it will not hold up well when much more truth about the subject surfaces in the years to come.
Thus, the film ends up as being as cowardly as the worst of the neocon sissyhawks like Richard Perle or Douglas Feith. It’s not their concern, except to profit from it. America used to be pretty good at cultivating conscience. We helped Germany and Japan get back on their feet, made amends with Vietnam faster than one would have thought, and we’re right there if there’s a quake in Iran, or a tsunami off Sumatra. But I know that, for empires in their late, militaristic phases, humanitarian acts in controversial places are generally eschewed as signs of weakness. We’ve specific work to do, and no one thought of all the innocents in 9/11 before they annihilated them, either. Too true. But when it’s known that one of al Qaeda’s main reasons for committing the 9/11 attacks was because of the presence of US and other western forces in Saudi Arabia, and that those forces were quietly shuffled out of that country soon after – thus actually adhering to al Qaeda’s desires – the holiness of 9/11 goes limp. And al Qaeda is dedicated to overthrowing the Saudi royal family, who are our most intimate of bedmates. It’s like right-winger Israelis exploiting the memory of Holocaust victims for their own agendas. It’s vulgar beyond words.
Another bit of odd though credible character development is that of the torturer, Dan (as played by Jason Clarke). Despite the extent of his primitive techniques, most viewers probably think that Dan isn’t the worst of all possible torturers. I mean, Vincent Price in ‘Pit and the Pendulum’ (1961) is more nefarious. Still, Dan is a sicko. He cares for his fuzzy monkey pets more than he does human beings – a dead giveaway. Still, as time goes on, he seems one of the saner types. Because, he chucks the whole torture scene and ditches the shitty little pop-stand he’s wallowing in. Not that he’s suddenly got religion or anything. The tragedy is that everyone else didn’t go with him. Is it because he privately thinks that torture doesn’t work, or that he’s a moral criminal? No, apparently it’s because ‘they’ got rid of his pet monkeys and he’d just like to do something else. We are denied any more hints. Of course, if you’re a hip audience, you don’t need any help. Figure it out! Pretty realistic though: the bankruptcy of these mediocre minds.
Dan later shows up as a high-level CIA operative – I guess. Real-life CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou, who actually was an operative in Pakistan, called the waterboarding bullshit and is sentenced to jail, while the Dan types remain free.
Indeed, past this film’s pettiness, any official documentation of the actual mission is all on the honor system. Believing what we are told is a matter of faith, and you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to ask a few questions in the murk. Proof of this is ‘ZDT’s discreet handling of UBL himself. It makes no commitment past Maya’s nod of positive identification – if we can trust her, that is.
Because, with that nod, the film becomes unabashedly cinematic. From the SEALs getting ‘off shift’, the camera then funnels down to UBL’s (presumed) corpse lying in state, as it were. It’s like a birthday gift to Maya, who has been waiting patiently. She’s done her Salome dance, and now they’ve brought her the head of John the Baptist. Unfortunately, the spell is broken when more balderdash is allowed to sneak in. With that gimmicky nod, the wing and prayer of Maya’s faith in herself is shattered. Because, unless she’d just formulated computer models of what UBL would look like about an hour after being shot in the face, and the probable distortions it would cause, she, Maya, was working with visual identification we all were familiar with. I’m as much of an expert as she is, because I’ve seen the same pictures she has! And with a Moe Green-style bullet through his eye, the outlaw’s ‘Old Testament merchant look’ was reduced to your average drone victim’s, after a successful strike.
How come nobody thought to give former ABC News reporter John Miller a call, as he had done more than one well-known interview with the man himself, face to face? Well, as this is a work of fiction, maybe they did, but that’s irrelevant here. In fact, Miller got snapped up by the FBI as a consultant, probably before he could reveal anything embarrassing over the airwaves about UBL’s involvement with the USA. And I hear tell that the FBI and the CIA were, and probably still are, at loggerheads over all this al Qaeda stuff. That’s another whole story in itself that was conveniently skirted here…
That’s why the Maya/UBL scene is pure movie magic – when they’re ‘alone’ together. It gives that poor kid not only some closure, it’s supposed to be proof positive to we the viewers, as well. Naturally though, all the DNA analysis will get to have the last word, but it was sweet of the filmmakers to give the glory to Maya. And we get to share it with her, while the rest of the world is excluded.
I suppose it was pretty smart not to cover the subject of UBL’s alleged body too closely, let alone its ultimate fate. We the public got a packaged narrative, but I suppose they had to rush out their ‘Warren Report’ before too many theories had a chance to coalesce. Coalescence has proceeded nevertheless. ‘ZDT’ jumps off that train before it even leaves the station, its flakiness intact.
Simply viewed as cinema though, this final sequence is impressive. The long shot of Maya standing under a streetlight is perhaps the most contrived device in the film, but it’s a wonderful choice. It’s really too bad that the preceding bulk of the picture could not have been constructed with this kind of pictoriality. Maya’s subsequent solo plane ride and attendant tears are uniform with this closing approach, and very welcome, but way too late to fix anything. It’s almost as if Ms. Bigelow was suddenly allowed to be an artistic moviemaker instead of a mere film editor assembling footage, so as to adhere to the stringent ‘assignment’ of all that came before.
To fashionably deconstruct this last sequence further, there Maya is, aboard her massive transport carrier, all alone in the load bay. Told she can go anywhere (hell, I’d choose Vladivostok first – never been there – then Ulan Bator, Bishkek, Tuva – sort of a former USSR tour, you know?), she wordlessly chooses an unremarkable strap-in station and sheds her tear. But why is she bawling? She got exactly what she wanted: her kill. She is true to her killer ‘muh-fuh’ reputation. She knows she must remain anonymous to the world at large, so this is her tickertape parade, so to speak. Not bad for a feisty kid from nowhere.
But this is of course where we the audience must employ our hipness. If this is a pyrrhic victory for Maya, we know why. Glaringly, we know. There’s a line at the close of the WWII drama ‘The Counterfeit Traitor’ (1962), a most thoughtful probing into the actual ethics of warfare – and with a powerful score by Alfred Newman – spoken by William Holden, after his friend asks what his black armband is for: ‘For so many.’
If checking UBL off the list has been accomplished, wither Maya? A time to learn (North) Korean? Nay – another, grander axis power awaits – to the west: a land once known as Persia, of course…
I must say right now, ‘Syriana’ (2005) is a superior film on this subject, and in a wider sense - without having to slavishly follow it. That film was judicious and prescient as far as its implications. The implications were in fact that the US is mucking about in matters over its head, that it will inevitably fuck up, and thus will only be able to extricate itself via simplistic narratives that will justify such erroneous behavior. This is only because they are mop-up story-tellings of situations inexcusably disastrous.
I think we all know that bin Laden could’ve been caught early on by a truly effective and collaborative police action instead of via imperialistically grand invasions (as if these wars had anything to do with bin Laden!), but it shows how much of a sideshow the actual man is/was. The damage from 9/11 is not changed one iota – though some of the victims’ families may find a bit of closure. That is, if they believe.
‘ZDT’ claims to be its own independent entity, but it is in fact enslaved to the sick neocon agendas that allowed for 9/11 in the first place. We know the White House was eagle-eyed over it, as well. Yet the film is merely a tacked-on appendage to an erroneous mentality for non-critical thinkers to wonder at. This is because, if the film might be considered a questioning, critical commentary on the whole bin Laden hunt, any questioning is far too buried in the tank, any subtlety far too repressed, any nuance that the mission and its players might be mere tools for mafia masters, is not even considered, so what are we left with?
I had hoped for maybe just a little bit of whistleblowing to pop up somewhere, but alas, all the evil ones on the American side remain protected. Dick Cheney isn’t even mentioned once. Nor is that ‘slam-dunk’ guy (what was his name again..? Oh yes, the ‘other’ George…)
Well, if we want to support the filmmakers in their statements, we can posit all sorts of doubtful benefits, but I don’t think we need to be so damn ‘interpretive’. This is a shallow film, not a multi-layered work of art. So, if that’s all it needs to be, not very many words remain to do the summing up.
I know Ms. Bigelow herself has had to surmount some tiresome image problems. A woman of striking appearance and presumably glamorous mien, she is in fact a down in the trenches artisan, and thus, the darling of cineastes who didn’t think such a director type could be taking on Raoul Walsh material with so much aplomb. She proved her point with ‘The Hurt Locker’ that impartial depiction of massively difficult circumstances made possible, but with ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ it is no great pleasure for me to say that she has been successfully seduced by the forces of neocon nonsense, who would have you believe that the bin Laden saga was one great simplistic parable about getting a ‘bad guy’ due to one tuffy gal’s persistence.
Earlier I said that this is a sad, very, very sad film, and thus it’s a sad, very, very sad state of affairs that such a complex history has been so packaged for our disposable digestion. But hey, it had to happen. I suppose Bigelow’s restraint is vastly preferable to, say, the perversions of a Ridley Scott or the mayhem of a Tarantino. Note: both these directors have done inarguably interesting work, but ‘ZDT’ clearly wouldn’t have been ‘right’ for them. Actually, wouldn’t it be something if David Lynch had had a crack at ‘ZDT’? Or Jane Campion? Stephen Gaghan? George Clooney? The Coens? Ang Lee? (the late) Otto Preminger?
There’s one bit of gender-specific reference to Kathryn Bigelow’s direction that I’ll mention, as ‘tis my own little interpretation of technique. That is, Bigelow’s hand-held camera technique. She obviously instructed her DP, Greig Fraser, to keep the hand-held effect to an absolute minimum, and it’s a relief to not have any ‘drunken camera’ coverage like you get with the latest Mercedes commercials. Still, the hand-held depiction is for that old ‘you are there’ effect, naturally. Well, speaking for myself, I wouldn’t have been anywhere in this bungled manhunt. If I ran the zoo, I would’ve gotten right on the search with an international police action, utilizing all the resources offered. Even Iran wanted to help, remember? That was huge. Any subsequent trial of UBL could have determined if he actually was the mastermind of 9/11, or if he was merely an approver of it, as seen in a very murky video. Of course the Bush Machine would’ve lost their very handy mascot for their illegal adventures, but the American public could’ve moved on to more constructive endeavors instead of having to endure the most mismanaged decade in the nation’s history. But I digress. ‘ZDT’ stimulates discussion points, does it not? This is probably the film’s main virtue.
Another bit of directorial sensitivity that perhaps a Gore Verbinski or a Seth Gordon or other masters of subtlety would have missed or have edited out is when the SEAL who actually shoots UBL is blown away by what he’s done. Figuratively. Is it a crisis of consciousness, or a prelude to triumphalism? For just a second, all in the green light, Bigelow toys with transcending her own mission to get this turkey wrapped. But I suppose the boys in the Pentagon would insist on excising such ‘thinking’ in the midst of a covert operation. For we in the audience though, this nuance is a nice touch – the most realistic moment in the mission - and so is the gesture from his superior, who tells him to ‘get to work’ gathering files, after noting the SEAL’s incredulity. Maybe the superior was jealous, but he keeps things egalitarian for the moment.
(More cool but silly trivia: in the credits, the costume designer comes before the composer’s. I’ve never seen that progression in credits hierarchy before, but I suppose it’s all right. Female sensitivity to fashion, or is it just because Desplat’s score was truly less important than the costumes? UPDATE: Uh, I just saw the Coens’ ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ (2001), and there it is: the costume credit comes before the composer’s. ‘ZDT’ isn’t as innovative as I’d thought…)
Fortunately, the film is lightweight and forgettable. It will step aside most readily for more purposeful attempts at truth to emerge. What should have been a significant attempt at intellectual storytelling in American cinema today ended up being a flaccid Patriot missile. But that’s why Moore was right on target when he said this film will make men uncomfortable. Women should indeed be paid much more attention to in matters of credibility. We need them to save men from themselves, NOW. But will they rise to the occasion? I’m not very sure that this film helps at all in that cause. If it happens to though, I applaud.
According to this film, in order to effectively get attention from men, women either have to seduce them, or they have to talk like them, act like them. As we know, in Maya’s case, it took a seemingly interminable time for her dream to come true, but it worked! It will long be debated whether the key factor in ‘getting’ bin Laden solely rested on one person’s heroic utterance of the colloquial term ‘motherfucker’. It had to be a male-oriented term, too. The ‘c’ word never would have made it. Like Helen’s face, sometimes it only takes one thing to launch a thousand ships. Today it need only be an obscenity – and an anti-feminist one at that. That’s our era in a nutshell for you.
It is my pleasure to retain one benefit of a doubt: that on any DVD/Blu-Ray release, an Ultra-Extended/Ultimate Director’s Cut version might completely cancel out every word of disappointment and cussedness I have just uttered. My own dream scenario is that Kathryn Bigelow was coerced (perhaps at gunpoint) to make the initial release version, and that, with a 386-minute Director’s Cut, she can properly emerge as the daring, heroic filmmaker of her age, who harrows out a greater truth, a deeper conscience.
It is certainly possible, and it could redeem this film that is so in need of redemption. However, I would expect that the passel of ‘making of’ extras in the kit to be marketed will serve to fully explain the movie’s mission, perhaps better than the movie itself, though I expect as much censorship and fact management to be in play as said film. But if certain neocons get pissed off with any revisionist ‘ZDT’ that might emerge from suppression, there are hordes of us who will come to Bigelow & Co.’s defense. I can’t imagine the pressure that must have been on her and her team to produce the ‘right’ filmization of this carefully shepherded subject.
There were about six people in the theatre on the mid-January day I saw it. Columbia should make a nice little profit, but it won’t be anywhere near ‘Skyfall’ or ‘Men In Black 3’. Ms. Bigelow can now proceed on her magnum cycle with a whole bunch of possibilities: ‘Benghazi!’, ‘A USS Called Cole’, ‘The Spider Hole: The Last Moments of A Dictator’, ‘The Dry Culvert: What REALLY Happened To Muammar’, ‘A Madman Once Known As Ahmadinejad’, ‘The Dearness Of A Leader’, ‘The Hunt Of The Century For Julian Assange’, ‘Bush/Beck’ - aka ‘The Persecution and Attempted Assassination of George H. W. Bush As Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Guantanamo Under the Direction of Glenn Beck’ (Ger. version: ‘Die Verfolgung und Versuchen Ermordung George H. W. Bush dargestellt durch die Schauspielgruppe des Hospizes du Guantánamo unter Anleitung des Glenn Beck’), and ‘Drones, Let’s Go!’
Indeed, what will Annapurna do now? A ‘Lovely Bones’-type fantasy?
‘Zero Dark Thirty’ ends up being in thirty degrees of darkness - below zero. Sad. Very, very sad.
©2013 by Brian Paul Bach
 ‘The name is derived from Major James Abbott, who (1849-53) pacified the district after the British annexation.’ A Handbook for Travellers in India and Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon 16th ed., London, John Murray 1949, p. 372. I’ve never seen or heard this fact mentioned in the American media anywhere, though I saw an Al Jazeera reporter wax incensed over the ‘American’ pronunciation of ‘Abbottabad'.