Zero Dark Thirty (2012) a (mildly) belated review

Given the popularity of the film and the many, many reviews of the same out there, I thought hard about whether it was worth it to offer my own spin on Zero Dark Thirty, perhaps one of the more controversial films of the past year.

After all, what more could I add to the myriad of opinions regarding the film, both good and bad?  Perhaps there was…we’ll see.

Briefly, Zero Dark Thirty is a film very much worth watching.  It is a steely account of the manhunt of Osama Bin Laden for the ten years from 9/11 to his killing by U.S. forces in 2011.

The movie’s main controversy centers around some early scenes depicting U.S. “enhanced interrogation” techniques, ie torture.  While the film does show that some information is extracted from one such use of the technique, in the end the film also shows that it is detective work and persistence that ultimately pays off in the manhunt.

Having said that, I can’t help but wonder what the critics were so bothered by.  Had director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal completely avoided the topic of torture -something that was sadly very much a part of the early days of the “war on terror”- they would have rightly been accused of whitewashing a reality of those early days.  Also, this ignores what I found most intriguing about the later part of the film, how the many sins of the Bush administration wound up coming back to bite the protagonists in their quest to find Bin Laden.

For example, when our protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain) pieces together the clues that lead U.S. intelligence to what they suspect is the Bin Laden compound, there winds up being great hesitancy (and 120 plus days of delay) before the order is given to assault the place.  In some of the film’s best moments (IMHO) we find that may of the higher ups in government are leery of committing any actions against the compound because of the dark specter of Weapons of Mass Destruction never found in Iraq.  In other words, the absolutist bluster of the Bush administration in that there were WMDs in Iraq and which led to the war in Iraq wound up causing the next administration to make damn sure they weren’t about to go down that rabbit hole again and assault a compound that certainly housed some high level figure (though they couldn’t be certain if they were terrorists or simply drug dealers) but one they could not verify was Osama Bin Laden himself.

If the film fails in any way it is that Ms. Bigelow chose to present her work in a very neutral, almost completely unemotional tone.  There are few ups or downs, with the notable exception being the tension from the raid on the Bin Laden compound.  For most of the rest of the film we “see” things through Maya’s eyes but because she’s presented throughout the film as an emotional cypher with no family nor lover and seemingly no friends, the film adopts her perspectives.

Which brings me to this:  In many ways, Zero Dark Thirty is not unlike another politically charged film, specifically All The President’s Men.  It is my feeling that All The President’s Men was a far more successful attempt to bring “real life” events to the big screen.  Both films shared a similar plot structure in that both sets of protagonists were hunting information.  In All The President’s Men, the information revolved around possible corruption in the White House while in Zero Dark Thirty, obviously, it was information leading to Bin Laden.

But what worked better in All The President’s Men was the fact that as a viewer I found myself far more engaged, emotionally, in what was going on.  Because of this emotional engagement as a viewer I was far more invested in the unfolding mystery and the very real fear that something sinister was going on here.  In Zero Dark Thirty, unfortunately, what I mentioned above regarding Maya’s lack of emotions winds up making most of what goes on an emotional blank and, therefore, we aren’t as deeply involved in the hunt as we might have been.

Despite this, I still recommend Zero Dark Thirty.  It is a worthwhile chronicle of a very dark time in U.S. history.

And, just for the heck of it…