Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 04, 2013 2:17 pm 
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Red headed CIA lady finds Bin Laden?

From Kathryn Bigelow, gifted maker of macho action films, comes Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Bin Laden that ended in a Navy Seal kill raid in Pakistan in May 2011.

The film is realistic and in-your-face in style, at least for the violent action parts. It's numbingly procedural though vivid enough to hold the attention, despite lacking ordinary suspense or thrills. But it raises many questions and gives few answers, and some of the answers it gives are obviously untrue. If you ask who was behind the success of the CIA effort to track down Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty will tell you it was a young woman named Maya (Jessica Chastain). Every step of the way it's Wonder Woman's determination that saves the day. But this was obviously a complex collective effort, and if there were a real Maya we'd know of her. Moreover Maya isn't even as interesting a character as the stolid bomb deconstructor played by Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker. The new film's female protagonist may provide a satisfying focus, but it's a complete distortion. Just a film, you say? But here is the paradox: an almost crushing sense of realism pervades a film that's a falsification in basic ways.

Zero Dark Thiry -- the title, as with The Hurt Locker, a US military jargon-phrase not explained on screen -- raises many other questions. The first ones concern Kathryn Bigelow's motives. Was it wise even to make this film, so soon after another intense military story, The Hurt Locker? What's behind this admiring focus on the US military, and now on the CIA? Has Bigelow gone over the deep end in some way? And what about the picture itself? Isn't it a little soon after the events? Starting with blank-screen recordings of 9/11 WTC victims' voices, themselves mostly a confused cacophony, moving through interrogations and searches and ending with the green images of the Seals' night-vision helicopter attacvk, this reads as an elaborate revenge flick. But when it comes to revenge, Tartantino is your man. Bigelow leaves the viewer merely exhausted and unsatisfied, like her protagonist, who seems rudderless at the end, like the student who passes her orals and then wanders the campus in a daze with no remaining sense of purpose.

About the events themselves there are questions, also unanswered: assuming it's well established that Bin Laden was as much behind 9/11 as he was behind many other Al Qaeda attacks, which is doubtless so, is hunting him down and killing him a good way to prevent future attacks? And if it is, isn't taking ten years to do it a little embarrassing?

Critics of the film, some without seeing it, raise the issue of its supposed advocacy of torture, since the first forty minutes mainly focus on the "enhanced interrogation methods" being applied to one or two prisoners, and Maya may seem to emerge from these events with leads to a certain "Abu Ahmad" (she pronounces it "Akmad"), a trusted courrier who may inadvertently, if found, point the way to the boss. But before pointing the finger at torture advocacy, we must note the pointed irony of showing Senator Obama declaring that "we" don't use torture, and the fact that the prisoner reveals the information not while being tortured, but over a tasty Middle Eastern meal he's served afterward. The whole thing is that this film isn't advocating torture, or anything. But maybe it is, because making a film about all this stuff certainly implies that we should consider it all, including the torture and the killing of Bin Laden, crucial in some way.

Boal and Bigelow collaborate to provide an excceptional wealth of detail, though they're more at ease with brute force than with normal conversation. Gone is all the entertainment and excitement and sheer fun that enlivened Bigelow's Point Break. The Navy Seals' operation in particular provides a sense of minute-by-minute accuracy. The only trouble is that we need help sifting through detail (as does the viewer of Zodiac); not being Navy Seals, we have a hard time knowing what's going on, and the detail only confuses us. This is why Rex Reed complained, with some reason, that Zero Dark Thirty isn't a movie. Before this climax finally comes in the last forty minutes of the film there is a lot of other stuff, sifting through names and photographs of bearded Middle Eastern suspects, who never emerge with much clarity. The focus is on the hunt, not the game. Every ten minutes or so Bigelow gives us a terrorist bomb as if to liven things up with some loud noises (just like any other action blockbuster), including an impressive scene where Maya and a female colleague are blown off their seats in a restaurant at the Islamabad Marriott and everything else flies off at the wall. There's even reference to the man who tried to blow up Times Square, used against Maya to suggest she's wasting the CIA's time and money out there in Pakistan. In between these explosions or threats of them there are a lot of office scenes, computers, men in suits, conferences, with Jessica Chastain and James Gandolfini trading F-words to liven things up. "I'm the M-F who found this place," Maya tells a high White House official in a big meeting, referring to the Bin Laden compound, typically hogging the spotlight and stunning all present, perhaps including us.

Here's another question: is this a great movie, or a great waste of talent? For all its stunning action scenes, this film's skewed point of view attributes far too much to a nonexistent protagonist, distorting everything. This perhaps explains why the final big Navy Seals sequence seems, as Variety's Peter Debruge puts it, "almost anti-climactic."

Zero Dark Thirty began a limited American release from 19 Dec. 2012. It opens wide in the US 11 Jan. 2013; in the UK it plays from 25 Jan. 3013.

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