I saw “Zero Dark Thirty” on Saturday and it has taken me this long to write about it. It’s not that I was upset about the film. Maybe I should have been, with all of the controversy that this film has stirred up about torture. No, it was more that I was perplexed. I didn’t know what to think about the movie. It is in a genre that I like, the espionage thriller and it is a well crafted product, but I was left unsatisfied.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is the story of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. It centers on Maya(Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent. She is recruited out of high school, just before 9/11 and we watch her over a ten-year period never wavering in her quest to find bin Laden. She has the monomaniacal resolve of Captain Ahab, searching for her white whale. She has no social life. Living and working in Pakistan tends to preclude that. She alienates her coworkers and intimidates her bosses. At one point she asks for a ‘drop line’ operation. The new boss assents, but he doesn’t believe in it. He has learned that life is better when he doesn’t disagree with her.
One reviewer characterized the CIA as middle school with clearances. This analogy shows our spy agency’s Wild West approach to the Middle East post 9/11, as portrayed. The movie captures this shoot first, ask questions later and blame the other kid, when the principal asks approach. Maya is able to be the school yard bully, because she has nothing to lose and there really isn’t any adult supervision.
She is introduced to ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques by Dan (Jason Clarke), another agent. Before she goes in the first time, he suggests watching on TV instead, “There is no shame in that.” She eschews both that suggestion and her facemask. She soon transitions from passive observer, to the person in charge. The only concession to her fairer sex that she allows is the burly man beside her at the interrogation table. He throws the punches at the chained man across the table, on her command.
I don’t feel bad about the torture depicted in the film, because I have been doubly inoculated. I’ve previously commented about the dozen violent trailers that were preamble to this movie. That doesn’t begin to count the hundreds of similar films that I have watched in whole. I could try to argue that their ceaseless violence has desensitized me, but that would not be correct. A lifetime of movies and one video have taught me the difference between Hollywood and reality.
Last fall, I was a juror. As evidence, I watched a four and a half hour interrogation for a statutory rape trial. There were no ‘enhancements’ to this interrogation, still it was way harder to watch than any scene in “Zero Dark Thirty”. It was excruciating. I’m still thankful for its fuzzy video and poor sound quality and that I didn’t have to choose the shame of watching TV. The torture scenes in the film are of such short duration that they become surreal compared to what I had to watch of reality.
I do feel that torture is wrong. I just feel that the movie ineptly portrays it. I also think that the director substituted scenes of torture for scenes of painstaking investigation, because of their relative cinematic value.
The torture issue aside, this movie is really the tale of two women. The first is director, Kathryn Bigelow. She won the Academy’s best director award for her last film, “The Hurt Locker”. She was shutout at the Golden Globes on Sunday and had previously been denied a second shot at Best Director by the Academy, even though the film is up for Best Picture. Did this movie direct itself?
The other woman is the real life CIA agent on whose life this movie is based. Subsequent to the events in the movie she was passed over for a promotion that many in the Agency thought that she deserved. This prompted one wag to ask, “Who do you have to kill around here to get a raise?”