Go Team USA: The Triumphalist Jingoism of “Zero Dark Thirty”

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

For me, the best part of Zero Dark Thirty, back when I saw it in New York, in December, was the preview for the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, beforehand. Although previous films by that director (Brian Helgeland), such as Payback and A Knight’s Tale, were hardly amazing, they were watchable, and there was something very appealing about the trailer. Perhaps the company that made that trailer just had a really good editor at work. We shall see. I also enjoyed seeing, for the second time, the ridiculous trailer for what promises to be a silly (but hopefully also very fun) new film from <gasp> Michael Bay: Pain & Gain.

Can you tell that I’m delaying writing about Zero Dark Thirty? Let’s see, what were the other trailers? Snitch (second preview with The Rock, this one not so good), Oblivion (now the third time I have seen this, and my reaction by now is: “blech”), Broken City (I’ll be seeing the film this Tuesday at a press screening, and just from the trailer it looks like it could be decent), and After Earth (is it just me, or does anyone else find it annoying how Will Smith keeps pushing his son on us?). After all of these coming attraction announcements, the feature film began.

Let me start my review with two declarations:

  1. I was not in raptures over The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s previous film. True, it won 6 Oscars, including Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture. I was happy to see a woman finally win for directing, and since the Oscars are generally more about successfully managed press campaigns than about the quality of the films, why not give it to Bigelow? She’d put in her dues, after all, with films like Near DarkBlue SteelPoint BreakStrange DaysThe Weight of Water, and K-19: The Widowmaker. There are plenty of male directors that I don’t particularly admire who have won Oscars – John G. Avildsen (Rocky), James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment), Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves), Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind), Delbert Mann (Marty) – so I was fine with her Oscar. Still, it might have been nice to have rewarded some earlier women directors whose work was of superior quality, such as Jane Campion (The Piano), Martha Coolidge (Rambling Rose), Jodie Foster (Little Man Tate), or Marleen Gorris (Mrs. Dalloway), to say nothing of women directors of foreign-language films, such as Claire Denis (Beau Travail), Deepa Mehta (EarthFireWater), Marleen Gorris, again (Antonia’s Line), or Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa). The Hurt Locker was a very well made film – Bigelow knows what to do with a camera and what to do with actors, especially macho male actors – but it left me cold and unengaged with the story. I felt, as I did watching Point Break and Strange Days, that Bigelow was more interested in the pyrotechnics and logistics of the action sequences than in character development.
  2. I felt, after watching this new film, as if I had just seen Team America: World Police again, only without the puppets, and without the irony.

Zero Dark Thirty, a movie about the hunt for, and eventual killing of, Osama (or Usama, as he should be called, as this film reminds us) bin Laden, has received mostly extremely positive reviews, and has even been called the best film of the year by some. On Thursday, January 10, 2013, it was even nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (though Bigelow was not nominated, herself, for Best Director). Here is a sampling of the critical praise. Even while praising the film, some have decried its depiction of torture, however. For a rare minority, that depiction of torture is inexcusable, leading to a negative reaction to the film. A documentary filmmaker I admire greatly, Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the RoomTaxi to the Dark Side), has even decided to publicly criticize the director, Bigelow, and the screenwriter, Mark Boal, for their irresponsible approach to the subject.

So where do I stand?

This is a competent enough, if plodding, espionage thriller with mostly compelling actors (except for the lead, Jessica Chastain, a lightweight who is mysteriously being called great in this film, and who just received a Best Actress nomination) that tells the story of the painstaking intelligence gathering that led to the ultimate revenge killing, when U.S. Navy Seals exacted retribution for the murder of 3000 people on September 11, 2001, on U.S. soil. But it is not a great film. It puts at its center a character, Maya, (Chastain), who remains a cypher throughout, yet with whom we are asked to sympathize time and again, especially at the end, once she cries post-mission accomplished. As a work of art, it falls short.

It is also morally reprehensible.

I’ve watched plenty of films that ask us to identify with people who do bad things, yet few have bothered me as much as this one did. Perhaps it was because this film purports to be journalistically true, and is told in a breathless patriotic manner, that I find its support of tactics in which no nation based on freedom and integrity should engage intolerable. Even if these events transpired as depicted – and there is pushback against that idea (granted, from some politicians and CIA operatives) – the fact that the filmmakers never address the morality of torture, or the debate around it, allows an impression that torture is just business as usual to permeate throughout. When confronted with this fact, the screenwriter responds, “It’s a movie, not a documentary.” Given that the appeal of the film is that it tells the story as it really happens, this is a disingenuous reply, as best (as Gibney notes in his piece, as well). The movie even opens with the following on-screen title “Based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” So one can disagree with the criticism leveled by folks like me, but one can’t claim that the film doesn’t deserve hard scrutiny on factual grounds. And leaving that aside, the title begs the questions – whose “first hand accounts?”

Full disclosure – though I love being a citizen of the United States, I despise tribal identification, and have never enjoyed books, movies, music, art, etc., that ask me to sympathize with a story just by virtue of being a member of the tribe being depicted. As Samuel Johnson once said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” So the rah-rah, Americans-are-the-only-ones-who-count tone of this film really rubbed me the wrong way. That doesn’t mean I sympathize with those who commit acts of terror, but just that I want to live in a world where we consider every human life as equally valuable, regardless of country of origin.

But while all of this would still bother me, I would at least understand the critical adulation showered on this film if it actually delivered the goods. The final raid on the bin Laden compound is extremely well rendered and engaging, but the rest of the film drags, as Rex Reed has noted. So what in the world is going on? I think it’s all about context. I imagine that a non-American audience of critics would react quite differently to the film. And if this were a film that had all of the same scenes, in the same order, but was strictly fictional without any reference to America’s most wanted man, I don’t think the same critics who love it now would remain quite so enamored.

And now, since the film annoyed me so much, I’d lke to just throw down my typed-up notes (originally written in the dark of the theater), rather than waste any more effort on a “review:”

  • Titles on screen, as well as occasional intertitles, make the film feel very documentary-like. Doesn’t this put the lie to the “it’s a movie, not a documentary” line?
  • Jason Clarke (Lawless): “In the end, everybody breaks. It’s biology.” Really? My understanding of torture is that this is only true in TV shows and movies.
  • Jason Clarke’s Aussie accent seems like it’s slipping through sometimes.
  • Whether or not we got actionable intelligence or not is a separate question as to whether or not we as a nation should be engaing in these acts of “enhanced interrogation.” The film does not address this question. If anything, it comes down squarely on the side of the interrogators, especially since one of them (Clarke) is one of the main characters. What is wrong with us if we think this is a good thing?
  • We never shoud have given an Oscar to the person who directed Point Break (imagine if we had given one to Jane Campion, instead).
  • The film shows torture like in a “gore-no” film – what’s the point of dwelling on it?
  • It feels like an extended episode of “24.
  • Detainee talks, after he says, “I have no desire to be tortured ever again.” See – torture works!
  • And then we get MORE “enhanced interrogation” (of London bombing mastermind)
  • Jessica Chastain is not always working for me – she’s actually a bit of a lightweight
  • After Chastain and Jennifer Ehle are stunned in Marriott explosion, why don’t they help others leave? They only save themselves.
  • Film, shockingly, almost has result of making me sympathetic w/ people on other side from us, since we treat them so poorly. I think Three Kings handled torture in a better way.
  • I thought Jennifer Ehle’s chracter behaved stupidly before she was blown up. Is that really what happened?
  • How did Chastain survive shooting of her car? What the hell!
  • Is that a Duplass in CIA headquarters? [looked it up later – is is! Mark Duplass in a major studio film . . . interesting.]
  • Mark Strong’s character’s comments about how they don’t have anyone to ask anymore because of the cancellation of the detainee program put the film squarely on the “torture is good” side.
  • A bit smarmy and anti-Obama: “The President is thoughtful and analytical. He needs proof.”
  • Audience I was with laughed when the Navy Seal called out “Osama” – twice! – on 3rd floor!!!! Was that because of nervous energy, or because they thought it was stupid, or . . . . who knows?
  • Triumphalist jingoism turns me off.
  • When Chastain cries at end, I feel as if we are asking to suddenly identify with someone for whom we have no backstory.

And that’s it. A big fat zero.


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