Zero Dark Thirty 2012 ★★★

That's a very grudging three stars, because — like Flight — there's more to chew on than I initially realized, but I still think it's kind of a crappy movie. Let me count the ways:

1) The first third in particular wore me down. I exceedingly dislike the way Bigelow transforms 7/7, the 2008 Islamabad Marriott bombing and the bombing of Camp Chapman into standard suspense setpieces (when will that explosive go off?). The latter particularly rubbed the wrong way: the longer Bigelow keeps intercutting between Maya's chat window and the guilelessly optimistic CIA officials awaiting their big break is downright sadistic. (It was just another gchat session UNTIL.) Is there intent here to make the viewer tensely ever-expectant of disaster, compelling identification with Maya's one-track quest? Maybe, but it's still obscenely button-pushing filmmaking imo.

2) There are a bunch of scenes here we've all sat through before, and at a certain point I don't care how many people Mark Boal talked to. Maybe national security really comes down, at a certain point, to Jessica Chastain getting feisty in a hallway and chewing Kyle Chandler out, demanding WHAT SHE NEEDS NOW OR A CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATION (so firey!), but I've seen this particular conflict way too many times before. Unless the point is that the CIA is a dysfunctional, badly run organization running on too much human impulsiveness, ass-covering and poor coordination. But somehow I doubt that.

3) The torture thing: over at The Atlantic, Mark Bowden lays out the most evenhanded assessment I've read of whether or not "enhanced interrogation" contributed useful information, and in turn how the movie portrays that. There's a case to be made that the movie tacitly depicts such methods as mostly producing junk results in addition to being morally corrosive and politically suicidal on the global stage — but there's an even stronger case to be made that the movie deliberately hedges its bets, refusing to take a clearly parsable stance. I suppose the alternative would be to have another, extraneous scene in which a separate person is "interrogated" in an "enhanced" manner to no end at all, but that would probably irritate me equally. So whatever.

4) The climactic storming of the bin Laden household is admittedly very compelling and well-shot, though honestly it doesn't do much that Bigelow didn't do already, some 17 years ago, in Strange Days. And yes, it's "morally ambiguous," complete with downbeat music from the ever-hacky Alexandre Desplat and the death of innocents, which of course could be transferred into an implicit argument about the moral/political failure of indiscriminate drone bombings, the misdirection of American political priorities into vengeance at the expense of foreign civilians, etc. etc. Bigelow certainly makes sure to include a lot of screaming/crying women and children, just to hammer the point home, but I dislike movies which lean on empathy rather than ethics (that's closer to bathos than thinking). By this point, I'd lapsed into such a torpor I maybe didn't appreciate how impressive this sequence was logistically; I'd kind of like to see it again out of context. Which itself is a problem.

5) The Obama administration refused to release photos of bin Laden's corpse, but Zero Dark Thirty gives you exactly that. Even then, not precisely: it's an overhead shot, with his head and body more out of focus at the bottom of the frame, more clearly seen through the photo snapped by a soldier. Why show this? I'm asking, genuinely.

6) (THIS IS MAYBE A SPOILER) When they're storming the house, a soldier calls out "Osama?." Very cat and mouse. Much unnerving laughter in the multiplex in response.

7) The most impressive part of this movie is the black-screen audio collage of 9/11.

8) Maya's character is maybe ambiguous. When she says she feels she's been "spared" in order to kill bin Laden, she sounds awfully like George W. Bush, who repeatedly said God had told him to do whatever. But at the end? When the pilot asks her where she's going and she doesn't answer because SHE SYMBOLICALLY DOESN'T KNOW WHERE SHE'S GOING AND NEITHER DOES THE NATION? Maybe the pilot can drop her down next to Tom Hanks at the Cast Away crossroads.

9) No one ever cast James Gandolfini as a real world figure ever again. Leon Panetta my ass.

19 Comments

  • I like the film more than you do but you're the only person I've encountered so far who shares my reservations, which concern not torture but the ways in which it conforms to a conventional underdog-hero narrative while pretending not to. Mucho elaboration in a forthcoming A.V. Club piece, but you touch on much of it here.

  • It is a rather square movie, but at least it puts Argo to shame.

  • This is the first thing I've written on Letterboxd Mike has "liked." Big day for me right here, no joke.

    And yes, Argo sucks.

  • I'm as stingy with likes as I am with A's. 19 total over six months, and six of those were me initially liking everything Theo wrote to encourage him (until he told me to knock it off).

  • This comment was removed by Letterboxd moderators.

  • Gosh, I never thought about it that way before Jason. You're right. I'll be committing ritual seppuku at dawn to make sure this never happens again.

  • You and Mike are totally on point with film. Maya's character starts off as nothing then devolves into a cliched hero, one-liners and all. Heck it's almost sexist in the way it does the "women are impulsive!" thing and all her superiors keep going "She's a smart one, eh". The marker on glass thing was ridiculous.
    I also feel that the raid is a fantastic sequence and the one place where the film's "we're not telling you what to think" swagger is justified. And yes it deserved a better movie.
    Can you elaborate on what you meant by "ethics not empathy"? Or how the sequence could've done that?

  • I don't know *how* to do it, but I don't think the issue should be "Oh look the women and children are crying!" The issue is collateral civilian damage: how much of it the military is willing to incur and consider acceptable, how much Americans are, etc. As presented here, it's just another sequence of endangered and frightened children and WHO COULD BE IN FAVOR OF THAT.

  • I don't know *how* to do it, but I don't think the issue should be "Oh look the women and children are crying!" The issue is collateral civilian damage: how much of it the military is willing to incur and consider acceptable, how much Americans are, etc. As presented here, it's just another sequence of endangered and frightened children and WHO COULD BE IN FAVOR OF THAT.

  • Yeah, the children crying is a cliche, but I think there's something interesting there about how the military "ethically" protects children and women; and how the one woman killed accidentally is treated like a tragedy. At the same time, the other kills in the sequence are so stinging and brutal unlike we usually see in Hollywood movies, and we don't even know who all these men are and if they deserve it.

  • I don't agree with your first complaint at all - in fact it comes across as someone who is congratulating himself at knowing the story in advance, and playing high-minded fact checker. Not knowing what was going to happen at Camp Chapman, the sequence was exceptionally successful for me, mainly the way it centers Ehle and her genuine happiness as having something come through for her.

    I mean how else would you have had it done, to satisfy the fact that you knew what was coming? A tasteful cut to the next morning just before each and every historically accurate depiction of violence, so you can nod your head and be satisfied that you are able to fill in the blanks yourself?

  • Re-reading, that sounds more dickish than I intended. Sorry.

    Still disagree though.

  • @transmogrifier: s'cool, we've all been there tonally.

    I know what you're saying. If we're being honest, I remembered 7/7 but had forgotten about the Marriott bombing and Camp Chapman entirely. But I wasn't taken by surprise; as I watched it, the film seemed to be sadistically priming Ehle and co. as bait. My issue is tonal, not fact-checking.

    Of course, when you say "how else would have had it done," I'll confess that I'm stymied. I honestly don't know how to do this "right." I don't think that disqualifies me from stating my complaint, but your mileage may vary on that.

  • I'd like to add that the 7/7 scene had no bearing on the narrative, apart for saying "more bad stuff is happening!" It may be the only thing with a political slant.

  • Off-topic: @transmogrifier, are you Matthew Butcher? Just asking because of your location and use of the 100-point scale, sorry if I'm way off.

  • No, not I, sorry.

  • First off: Don't know why I even bother writing about movies any more when Vadim manages to articulate everything so much better, even the bits I disagree with.

    There's one thing, though, that I'm curious about: did anybody else find the Abbottabad raid to be less suspenseful than, I don't know, fatalistic? by the numbers? something?

    I just wonder if I got the feeling because I'd read The New Yorker story and sorta knew the beats (or at least instantly recognized them) or if it's handled in a different way than the earlier setpieces.

  • Love your Cast Away reference.

  • "7) The most impressive part of this movie is the black-screen audio collage of 9/11."
    Afraid that I have not seen Zero Dark Thirty yet, but how does this black-screen audio collage compare to the similar sounds of 9/11 over black in Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu's segment of the portmanteau 09'11"01?

  • A very good question to which I don't know the answer, having not seen that.

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