{in theatres} Zero Dark Thirty

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I saw Zero Dark Thirty earlier than its wide-release January 11th opening by chance. A winter storm delayed my holiday trip and landed me in New York City for 24 hours, so I did what I always do when I have unexpected free time: I found a theatre. And that theatre was one of a few in the country showing Zero Dark Thirty.

I stood in a long line of New Yorkers escaping the cold to settle into the cavernous theatre. I had heard snippets of the film’s background (a second collaboration between The Hurt Locker‘s Oscar-winning director, Kathryn Bigelow, and writer, Mark Boal) and its controversy (allegations of too-lenient CIA-access, its portrayal of torture).

But as soon as the curtain parted, all that buzz lost meaning. The film opens with a black screen and audio from 9/11 emergency calls. I listened in re-wakened sorrow, surrounded on all sides by people who had seen this tragedy unfold firsthand eleven short years ago. The absence of visuals put the focus on how individuals in the audio experienced 9/11 in its immediacy, before 9/11 became a rallying cry, an accusation, an era-divider, a political wedge, a justification, and a defining moment in our shared history.

Bigelow (Strange Days, Point Break) continues to choose that individual immediacy over national generalization throughout the film. We are efficiently introduced to Maya, a CIA analyst who has been on Bin Laden’s trail ever since she was recruited to the job straight out of high school. It’s Maya’s journey we follow, as her quest to find Bin Laden becomes increasingly desperate and personal. Bigelow and Boal smartly guide the audience to empathize with this stubborn and intelligent woman (reportedly based on an existing female analyst), making what could have been, in less capable hands, a blood-lusting revenge film into a character-study thriller. 

The narrative is more journalistically metered than Hollywood-paced. We meet Maya when she joins a prisoner interrogation and we leave her when the the search for Bin Laden is over. In between, her journey is real-life frustrating and unpolished. She is admirable in her persistance and loyalty to her fellow agents, but that same single-mindedness is frightening when it leads her to quickly overcome her initial ambivalence toward harsh prisoner treatment.

Some (including the current head of the CIA) have criticized the film for portraying torture as integral to the Bin Laden manhunt. I don’t know what happened in reality, but I thought the film showed inhumane interrogation techniques (such as waterboarding) to be ultimately ineffective. In her unsentimental camera gaze, Bigelow seems to be leaving the judgment to the viewer: Torture is part of this story…you make the moral call. (For the record, I am firmly against the use of torture.)

What is inarguable about this film is Jessica Chastain’s incredible commitment. Chastain (Take Shelter, Tree of Life, The Debt, The Help) gives Maya a tough tenacity. (When questioned on her presence at a high-level meeting about the Bin Laden compound, Maya answers  the CIA Director, “I’m the mother-f*$!er who found this place.”)But Chastain also makes Maya human. The determined anyalst is no superhero. She flinches at her first exposure to waterboarding. She cries when she loses friends. When she gets the call that the risky raid has been approved, she looks around her at the still-ignorant Navy Seals with wide-eyed compassion.

SPOILER ALERT. (As much as a film based on real events can be spoiled.) And when the raid is carried out, and the Seals bring back the body, Chastain’s Maya doesn’t celebrate. She confirms Bin Laden’s identity soberly, and walks out of the tent into the dusty desert night. Chastain communicates relief and exhaustion, but not triumph. This is not a revenge film.

What is it, then? I’d argue it’s a question and a challenge. In Zero Dark Thirty’s last scene, Maya boards an empty aircraft carrier, reserved for her as a reward for her service. Off camera, the pilot asks her, “Where do you want to go?” Chastain’s face fills the frame. Her eyes well. She searches for an answer that won’t come. She doesn’t know where she wants to go. Do we?

As Americans, with the leader of the group who claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks dead, do we know where we go from here? Do we know how to move on from this dark period in our history? Do we know where we want to go?

gimme five | Zero Dark Thirty

Good for: Anyone interested in the future of America.

Invite your: Movie-dissecting friend. You’re going to want to discuss afterward.

Snack on: French fries, as Maya does.

Bring your: Night-vision goggles and the ability to handle ambiguity.

Skip if: You’re so young that your parents won’t let you go…seriously, grown-ups, this is the un-skippable film of the year.

As Zero Dark Thirty asks, where do we (as Americans) want to go?

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Sarah Magill

Sarah Magill has a full-time movie habit made possible by a day-time greeting card writing gig. She blogs at Gimme Some Film and is learning to write scripts and direct. She tries to balance her screen obsession with trail running, jazz singing, book clubbing, and hanging out with The Best Golden Retriever Ever, Copa.

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0 comments on “{in theatres} Zero Dark Thirty”

  1. Excellent. Looking forward to seeing it this weekend.

    • I guess I should’ve posted my other post here. I like your perspective on the movie and agree with almost everything. Love your term “journalistically metered.” It’s very…generous. :) I still didn’t like her line to the CIA Director. It almost ruined the whole movie for me. It’s hard to like someone who accomplishes something great, then says, “Yeah Muthaf**ker! I did this!” What if our Olympic Gold Medalists acted that way? Maybe that’s an unfair analogy, but her being the only woman in a room packed with men was a brilliant visual that said it all. Saying it out loud in a juvenile way pulled the rug out from under it IMO.

    • Got to see this last night – yup, incredible.
      It’s interesting that you wrote “this is not a revenge film.” There was a trailer for a most definitely revenge-driven film before zero dark thirty started, and I was thinking about how I just can’t get into revenge stories. And the story of hunting down Bin Laden would seem to definitely be that, but it never felt like it at all. Made me think about justice vs. revenge vs. making sure more terrible things don’t happen (a very different, future-focused mindset). I really loved that this movie didn’t tell me what to think, just what to think about.

    • I get your criticism…but I know how I’ve felt in male-dominated situations before…like I have to go above and beyond and even get a little ornery to be heard…and I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in an environment like the CIA…so it didn’t seem so out of character to me for Maya to get mouthy. She’s frustrated. No one is listening to her. Her opinion isn’t being counted as valid. So she says the one word that will guarantee all ears are on her. I don’t think it’s a brag, I think it’s a tactic.

    • Totally get it. It’s fascinating to me how a moment can play differently for different viewers. To me, the moment your theory fills a conference room of top top CIA officials, who are standing over a scale model based on your conjecture, and they are considering green lighting an operation that may cost millions of dollars, break international treaties, and risk the lives of 24 of our “best and brightest” – all of this based on circumstantial evidence and not proof – then it’s pretty evident that people are listening to you, and your opinion has gained 99% of the possible validity.

      And I got all of that from the scene’s first establishing shot. This blew me away.

      But on the flip-side, I can totally see what you’re saying.

      I love film.

    • Yeah — one of the best parts of post-movie discussions is comparing differences in perceptions!

  2. Great review. I’ve had mixed feelings about this film, but really want to see it now. I’m glad you were able to see it even on an unplanned layover!

  3. Great review.

    I was blown away by this movie. HOW did the director get so much info and make it in such a short time?? When have I *ever* seen a female hero like this? (And she’s not the only hard-working, sharp woman in the story, either.)

    I have a hard time imagining that anyone could watch the opening torture scenes and think, “Yeah, this is something the U.S. ought to be doing.” At the same time, she makes the viewer understand how the interrogators are motivated by desperation and fear of the next attack. None of the violence is depicted as anything but a grim and morally ambiguous business.

    Chris Pratt as the Seal leader was inspired casting.

    • I loved how they didn’t spend a lot of time delving into Maya’s personal life. Like many male movie heroes, her job is her life, and they leave it at that (besides that one short convo with her friend in the hotel lobby, which Maya can’t even begin to have).

      Bigelow has been quoted as saying something to the effect of “portrayal is not endorsement’ re: the torture scenes. That was the message I got: This was a messy business…where are we going to go from here? What kind of country do we want to be? Like you said: grim and morally ambiguous.

      And, YES, Chris Pratt!!

  4. Question: Had this film not been directed by Bigelow, would you have liked it as much?

    • If the film wasn’t directed by Bigelow, it would’ve been a different film…so impossible to say. BUT if you’re asking if I liked in in part because I like Bigelow and the fact that she’s making great movies in a male-dominated industry: It definitely adds to my post-movie enjoyment (“Yeah! That was a great movie! Score one for the girls!”) but I don’t think it affected my in-movie experience. It’s a well-made, thought-provoking film regardless of the director’s gender. I’d say having the main character be female had much more to do with my in-movie experience. I thought that choice forced viewers to watch differently; we couldn’t apply all our learned expectations for male political/military thriller protagonists to Maya. She was a new creature, and we had to follow her as such. I’m hopeful that in the future making the lead a woman won’t create that kind of perk-up-and-pay-attention audience reaction…but in the meantime, it’s a useful storytelling tool that definitely made this film richer.