|A SHADOW OVER AMERICA|
ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) ****
dir. Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Chris Pratt, James Gandolfini
Review By Greg Klymkiw
ZERO DARK THIRTY is one of the best directed films I've seen in recent years.
In painstaking and riveting detail, the movie unfurls the brave efforts of the CIA to orchestrate the assassination an unarmed man in his sleep. You know the type - a man who wasn't all that heavily guarded and lived with a whole bunch of women and children, a man who could have effortlessly been taken alive and tried as a war criminal or, for that matter, a common criminal; a man, who at least to my mind, appeared to believe in something - certainly something well beyond what most Western power-brokers believe in and finally, a man whose actions - if in fact there exists conclusive proof of his involvement in 9/11 and other criminal terrorism WITHIN widely accepted standards of jurisprudence - are not beyond what has already been committed a thousand-fold by corporate (or colonialist) imperialists who hide their money-grubbing Totalitarianism behind the tenets of democracy.
All that aside, ZERO DARK THIRTY boasts a rich and detailed screenplay by former war reporter Mark Boal that focuses upon Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA field worker who maintains a seeming passivity during her hunt for the aforementioned most hated man in the Western World.
Maya is a great character and it's great writing that generates this fascinating human being played with a skin-deep detachment by Chastain. I love the fact that we know NOTHING about her other than what we learn by her actions through the film.
This IS cinema.
Thank Christ she doesn't have a significant other. If she does, it matters little to her. Then again, Maya's actions speak louder than words - there's no way in Hell she'd let some stupid boyfriend, husband or even fuck-buddy get in the way of her work.
Does she, perchance, have a mother or father? Do they love her? Did they beat her? Did they chain her up in a basement cold storage locker? Did Momma look the other way when Daddy paid special visits to Maya's bedroom? Did they force her to worship on Sundays? I have no idea and I'm eternally grateful to Boal and Bigelow that they didn't bore the fuck out of me with any such nonsense.
Besides, what's cool about her - REALLY cool - is that as written and acted, Maya's passivity is deceiving. Beneath the calm and even her initial doubts about utilizing torture to gain needed information, Maya is only passive on the surface.
Just below the downy white flesh of Ms. Chastain is a roiling, scheming and extremely intense young woman who is not only formidably active, but ultimately instrumental in successfully pursuing her quarry. It's a great role that could only be tackled by the very best of actresses (which Chastain most certainly is).
That said, I must confess to you my odd fantasy involving either Kate Hepburn or Roz Russell in this part - somehow ported from their early years through a stitch in time to take on the Maya role.
But, I digress.
Chastain's genuinely great!
She is. of course, bouyed beautifully by Kathryn Bigelow's dazzling direction. The Academy Award winning director always has the camera in the right place, the right time and with the right composition. This is a good thing when you're making any movie, but especially one set against torture, espionage and war. Most contemporary directors haven't grasped the idea of using CLASSICAL movie making as the springboard into dangerous and exciting cinematic territory. This, of course, is because most of them are no good. Not so with Bigelow. She tackles the narrative with all skill and artistry great filmmakers possess.
Basically, what we've got in ZERO DARK THIRTY is a story we all know the ending to.
Ah, but even familiar tales are always worth telling when both the perspective and the ride itself are as unique and thrilling as Bigelow's work here proves to be. Frankly, while I appreciated her work in THE HURT LOCKER, it's not a film I found especially engaging. Until ZERO DARK THIRTY, my favourite Bigelow remained her unrelentingly terrifying vampire thriller NEAR DARK. Her command of the medium and a deft touch with generating suspense in that picture are finally (and genuinely) surpassed here. ZERO DARK THIRTY is a film that finally even manages to overtake the Grandfather of all movies we knew the ending to before seeing it (and where IT made NO difference at all).
Fred Zinnemann's 70s classic thriller, a film adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's best-selling book The Day of the Jackal follows a failed assassination attempt upon French President Charles de Gaulle. It's a cooly detached portrait of a hired killer pursuing his quarry and a cop pursuing HIS quarry, the hired killer. Though we knew de Gaulle survived all attempts on his life, Zinnemann's meticulous direction rendered a chilling and suspenseful motion picture experience (that holds up to this very day). Like Zinnemann's relentless killer and cop, Bigelow focuses a similar intensity upon her special bird of prey with the kind of classic aplomb and downright great craft that's so lacking in contemporary cinema.
Now, unless you've been residing in a monastic cloister, you'd be the only one NOT to know that ZERO DARK THIRTY is the true tale of how al-Qaeda's head honcho Osama bin Laden was doggedly pursued by the CIA over a ten-year period following the events of 9/11 and how he was eventually assassinated in 2011 by America's brave Navy SEALs who stormed a home within a Pakistani compound filled with mostly sleeping women and children.
And you also must know, there's simply no two ways about it; that ZERO DARK THIRTY is pure, unadulterated cinema of the highest order. Utilizing a series of composite characters based on real people and events, all derived from extensive research and access to a variety of both materials and perspectives, it's finally all the details - some minute, others not so - that keep us gripped to the edge of our seats. The movie making is first-rate!
For me, though, there is still a problem with the whole enterprise.
Boal and Bigelow maintain an admirable sense of detachment to this story - not, of course, on the visceral or kinetic levels where the picture infuses you with continual jolts of electricity, but on a moral plateau. Maya's intensity and belief in the pursuit of her goal is so unquestionable that we're with her all the way. We know she (and America) did indeed succeed in the goal of finding bin Laden, but while watching the movie, all Maya's struggles, setbacks, disappointments and eventually, triumphs are so expertly handled that we find ourselves rooting for her in ways that are finally not unlike those ascribed to the very best genre pictures.
In spite of this, or maybe BECAUSE of it, something very foul keeps sticking in my craw.
First of all, let it be said that the movie is not even close to the idiotic levels of racism and propagandistic tub-thumping on display in the barely competent Ben Affleck-directed abomination ARGO. ZERO DARK THIRTY is not just a good movie, it might actually be a great movie, BUT is it, like many great films (far more than many wish to admit), pure propaganda? Is Bigelow akin to the likes of Leni Riefenstahl and Sergei Eisenstein, both of whom did go on to brilliantly, excitingly and artistically extol the values of butchers? (Hitler and Stalin respectively.)
Are we to blindly, unconsciously accept that the "butcher" in ZERO DARK THIRTY just had to do what had to be done?
And who, exactly, is the butcher? It's not Maya. She's doing her job, which is, ultimately her duty. She's not just "following orders". She's got her own agendas and needs. The real butchers are the very butchers at war with anyone or anything in the way of their ravenous need to accumulate wealth. After all, American foreign policy since the post-WWII period cannot in all reality be ascribed to one specific Totalitarian ruler (or even several). The country's leaders are (and have been through most of the 20th Century) little more than puppets for the real puppet masters. Call these string-pullers what you will - corporations, big money, the New World Order of the One World Government persuasion; they all add up to the same thing - an invisible enemy that flouts international rules of war with the same tactics employed by terrorists.
For the life of me, though, I simply can't escape the kind of queasy, sickening feeling the aforementioned "narrative" elements of ZERO DARK THIRTY gave me and continue to deliver. In fact, the movie makes me think that it's possibly even a big cheat on Bigelow's part NOT to take a moral stand somewhere within the proceedings.
Or is she taking a moral stand?
Better yet, is it submerged - sitting there and waiting for US to find it?
I think it might be a bit of both. The final attack upon bin Laden's compound is tremendously, pulse-poundingly suspenseful. Shooting through the creepy, ghostly puke-green night vision goggles goes a long way to putting you on edge. Bigelow's compositions and camera moves are initially so stealthy that virtually every sight, sound and unexpected motion jangles our nerves. This is no cavalry charge. Bigelow shoots the sequence like an animal stalking its prey and as we follow the NavySEALS deeper and deeper into the interior of the compound it's like we're ploughing headlong into chambers of doom.
This achieves two things. First of all, it's just plain fucking scary - especially if you're happily ignorant of what precisely went on in the compound (as I was), save for knowing the bin Laden was assassinated. Secondly, there's that strange thing that happens when you're watching something where you DO KNOW the final outcome. Even though you're watching a fictionalized rendering of real events, a part of you begins to hear the women and children crying and the acceleration towards the ultimate action and there's this part of you - either your own sense of humanity or that which the movie rips out of you and for a moment or two just before shots ring out and a pool of blood begins to slowly creep across the floor, you have this sense that maybe, just maybe we won't be seeing what amounts to a cold blooded assassination. Even while this goes through your mind, you know it's not going to happen that way and you're overwhelmed with incredible sadness over the act itself and the very horrendous state of the world.
I personally feel Bigelow IS taking a moral stand here, but is also leaving plenty of ambiguity throughout the film and even this sequence that it's nigh impossible to forget the overall effect this has upon you and that the movie has delivered something you might well be wrestling with forever.
Are we then to accept that Bigelow's "objectively" extolling the virtues of torture, of illegally entering foreign territories to wage war and/or commit assassinations? I hope not, but the movie doesn't slam it's gavel down hard enough on that point.
Even now, i continue to have questions about this for myself. Am I the only one who feels this way about the picture? Am I naive to think it could have been presented another way and still achieve Bigelow's seemingly desired effect?
Am I, as an audience member and human being just supposed to accept we are witnessing an entertainment detailing assassination as a justifiable means to an end? (And we MUST not forget that this IS ultimately an "entertainment".)
And if we accept this as a justifiable means to an end, what is that end? An end to what? An end to the thousands upon thousands upon millions of innocent people in the Middle East (and for good measure, Korea, Vietnam, Central and South America, etc.) who have already been and continue to be murdered and tortured either directly or indirectly by America?
And for what? The preservation of democratic values? (Yes, an oxymoron if there ever was one.)
Or is it for Revenge?
Is it enough for the film - ANY film - to leave me with these questions?
Is this what possibly makes it great?
The fuck if I really know, but something tells me that YES, it IS the questions that will ensure the film's eventual masterpiece status. And like all master filmmakers prove, we're not asking these questions while the film is rolling. That all mostly happens when the movie is over.
And is the film propaganda? Yes, I do think it is, but not necessarily on the sledgehammer side of the equation.
In a recent Facebook conversation with the brilliant writer Anne Billson, she astutely notes:
"I concluded that presenting the facts (including torture and assassination) without any sort of moral editorialising (or jingoism and triumphalism, for that matter) was the only way to tell this story and the opposite of cheating. I think it's a very brave film, and while people who condemn it for "endorsing" torture are missing the point (unless you think showing something is automatically an "endorsement" of it), the viewer's reactions are as much a part of the experience as the film itself, and thus negative ones are as important and necessary as positive ones."
Billson's comment about how some might believe that the act of merely showing something could be seen as an endorsement of it, is a point in her own astute assessment of the movie that hit me like a tsunami. I'm extremely grateful to her for bringing this up because it forced me to assess my own beliefs in this regard and realize that YES, I do think - in some cases there will always be an element of "endorsement" - conscious or not on the part of both the artist AND the viewer. I'd go further to say that the very act of making the film (almost ANY film, really) is indeed infused with propagandistic elements. I'm also not saying it's "bad" or "good", but just the way it is.
What's most apparent about this genuinely important and powerful film is that Bigelow is NOT wearing her heart on her sleeve.
And neither is her movie.
In spite of this, it's a picture with a lot of heart and in these terrible times we live in, heart might be what's needed most.
ZERO DARK THIRTY is nominated for 5 Oscars - all of which are highly deserving: Best Picture, Actress (Jessica Chastain), Original Screenplay, Film Editing and Sound Editing. To not be nominated for Directing, however, is a disgrace (almost as disgraceful as how Paul Thomas Anderson's THE MASTER has been given an ignoble short shrift in this horse race called Oscar). ZERO DARK THIRTY is in wide release in Canada through Alliance Films and in the USA via Columbia/Sony. And you DO need to see it. Preferably on a big screen in a real movie theatre.