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Zero Dark Thirty - Film Review

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Published October 2nd 2013


This film is an enigma still. Unlike the great injustices of the discussion surrounding this film (of torture, of the verisimilitude of content, of deeper CIA conspiracies in support of hidden agenda), the most compelling question is; is this movie any good? Does it have qualities of art or excellence by which we gauge this form? I'm torn between two answers – It's a film tethered to content, a slave to a prescriptive narrative. Or, maybe, it has some depth of subtlety (my hope after seeing The Hurt Locker) and achieves something in reverence and gravity and power, perhaps in some barely perceptible way, by the extreme simplicity of its storytelling. It's a film that leaves me in a head space where the answers to the above seem to be qualitatively void, but I cant shake the feeling that the void is superficial only, hiding some greater insights beyond. Like a documentary made with objective intent and execution, clear and succinct to watch, that happened to be directed by Salvador Dali. There's a hidden melting clock around every corner...or maybe there just isn't.

To me, it's an enigma.

These are some not enigmas.

I love the moment in Sunshine when they step onto the lost expedition ship for the first time, the deathly air filled with specks of human skin, and we see a subliminal flash; a few frames only of a time before tragedy. It's clever. It shakes you up. It puts you where Danny Boyle wants you to be. You're aware of it, but cant stop it.

I love the scene in really any Paul Thomas Anderson film, where the growing tension of a conversation (Tom Cruise and his interviewer in Magnolia, Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master, any number of times Daniel Day Lewis opens his mouth in There Will Be Blood) sneaks up on you. I'ts deeply manipulative. It's intensity by a thousand cuts. He's got you on a string.

I love the moment when Bill Paxton freaks his bean in Aliens. It's super 80's. It wast clich้, because it became the clich้. The best true form of old school action thrillers, that some films reach for and very few achieve. It's 100 kinds of awesome, and worth the price of admission.

I can point to this stuff and say 'It's clear what I like about this'. There are identifiably likeable (not always 'good') things about these moments, and the films which they are in. I like it because Boyle forces my emotional investment in a film. I like it because PTA is in touch with subtle emotional realities that plague my own life. I like it because Paxton is an acting GENIUS! (I imagine the Paxton household gets loud if there isn't enough milk left for the cereal. Game. Over. Man.) This is far less clear to me after watching Zero Dark Thirty a few times now.

The reason I consider Bigelow an exceptional film maker is that The Hurt Locker, her first sensational film ostensibly about disarming IEDs in Iraq, isn't about disarming IEDs in Iraq. This is the difference between the blockbuster, dime a dozen, sensational content, cash-cow-intent films and a movie with substance. It's a film summarised in the first seconds "The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug". It's about a ubiquitous quality in humankind – that meaninglessness and despair may not be a product of a lack of pleasure, but an abundance. We experience thrill, we seek more of it and each time we find it again it comes with a cost of degrading that thrill. So we seek greater thrills, and greater. Like the heroin addict, so goes the war addict.

So Renner walks off into the sunset of War, and we don't experience his inevitable epiphany or demise. It's a brilliant film, and not just for the exposition of the above themes – the 'tradecraft' is exceptional. She captures the claustrophobic moments inside a bomb detonation suit, with tight shots and tethered cameras, she's not afraid of silence and understands tension, she knows that every angle contributes to telling the story; and the story mostly takes place in the psyche of Renner and the poor sods who get stuck with him in Iraq.

Where is this in Zero Dark Thirty? I should probably be disqualified from writing a review of this film, on the grounds of asking this question again and again. The 'be judged by your previous work' thinking is perfect in almost all other cases, but this film may not be one for the Bigelow canon.

I watched this movie the third time around with some very clever literary friends. One comment that added clarity came during the final third of the movie, watching the Delta Forces fly toward the compound in Abadabad.

"This movie wasn't made for an Australian audience"

This is both a normal and unusual consideration when watching a film. We kind of 'get' other cultures, or enough anyway, most of the time, for it not to matter. Our general ignorance is subsidised by the fact that most films speak to the human condition in some way, or big things blow up and Bruce Willis shoots some guys or whatever, and cultural concerns don't matter so much. They work and the nationality of the audience doesn't play. Even in tales with strong cultural components – Silver Linings Playbook means a great deal to audiences from Philadelphia in ways that I don't understand, but the core of the movie isn't lost on anyone who has found love. And anyway, 'Zero Dark Thirty' is an American movie?

It was the music throughout the movie (most apparent in the flight sequence mentioned previous) that led to my friend's comment and my (late as always!) epiphany. It's a solid, if more powerfully ominous impression of some imperial death march as they fly towards the target. Once confronted with the music (and it is unmistakable once you focus on it) it became clear that the power of this scene was greatly (maybe completely) lost on me, and perhaps any audience outside of the U.S.A. The music is not kidding around; it is completely, breathtakingly serious and sombre, almost sacred. It suggests that we should be taking these moments with some sense of profound gravity.

An Australian audience, however encounters these musical affectations as an intellectual exercise only. In the moment, it seems utilitarian and dispassionate; these guys where on their way to do what the audience knew they were going to do for about 2 hours, and then 10 years before. The music, in a profound disconnect speaks of descending into the lowest level of hell itself. I just never really thought Bin Laden was the devil. Although the disconnect became apparent at this point, it informs the previous 2/3's of the film; that this movie has two very different meanings to two different audiences.

As a quick side, the actors in the Delta Force squad (apart from being guys who I've been into lately from other great films) also contribute to the cultural disconnect of this sequence – they appear as relative unknowns, not as yet establishing a 'serious' acting persona to an American audience (Chris Pratt is hilarious on Parks and Rec. Joel Edgerton remains an amazing character actor but not widely known such that he is typecast or categorised) and as such able to absorb the heroic and 'American' qualities this audience would project onto them, without the distraction of stardom. To a film literate Australian audience, these were cool up and coming actors, some from the homeland (or close enough) and this is a film where they can establish credentials we already knew they had. We take them as actors doing great work. They take them with reverence, as representations of the honoured few who succeed in a quest which will live on in mythology.

So, it's a disconnect; between what the music and scene intends to communicate, and what it did. It's a disconnect between actors representing the hand of American retribution, and some nice outside the box picks for recounting a series of events. It's a disconnect between an almost sacrosanct intensity experienced by American audiences (indicated by a slew of reviews and feedback on podcasts and blogs around the U.S.A) and what to me seemed more like a dispassionate documentary.

It's the void and a melting clock.

It's an exercise in fairness to watch this film (if you aren't from the US) and try to extend your perspective. Trying to find a patriotic passionate American head space deeply wounded by terrorism, angry and proud; this would be as futile as trying to understand some religious experience without experiencing it. So throughout the film, exchange "American Delta' for Australian SAS. Exchange super cool radar defeating American helicopters to Australian ones. Attacks on New York, with attacks on somewhere you care about (or even someone). Maybe you will feel it for a second. Just a taste of the greater magnitude of what this film represents and where it may eventually find itself in the lexicon of great movies. It may also make countless reverent and strange seeming American reviews of this film come into focus.

Does this count? Is it enough that Bigelow understood the baggage that American audiences (and pretend ones in the thought experiment above) were bringing this into the film with them, and used it as the greater substance that adds depth to the film. Why couldn't it have been both a slave to the power of these events (and the sombre duty Bigelow has in taking them on) and something else? For example, a character driven piece or a genuine analysis of greater themes (in the film rather then the content); of evil and good, of moral superiority and failing. What greater content could there be to approach these issues? I wonder if the answer to this is fear in a lack of sophistication from her audience. While other cultures may accept a film driven by a character who exists in the wonderful realm of metaphor; a character who drives forward themes and speaks to us in a voice that the director wishes for us to hear – surely an American audience would not accept this. Any attention pulled from the content may have been met with outrage. It is catharsis for all America, not one lady. It is retribution for all America, not one team of soldiers. It is the holy tale of the death of evil

Obviously this film encounters a great many themes. Is torture effective? Should it have been used? What credit or blame do we give either the Obama administration or the Bush administration? These, and many more, are a result of the content only. Of (real?) events. As manic and passionate as the discussion surrounding this film has been, the conversation arises not from some deeper analysis of content, but from these events. In this sense, we may sway back toward the metaphorical void of this film; with some small hope remaining that the voice of the director is somewhere in this film.

There may be clues. It may be subtle.

Much of the story telling is clinical and simple, revealing nothing. The scenes depicting torture are shot in clear and tight docu-drama style, with no music. Maya (Chastain's character) recoils in brief moments, but not more then any observer would. Nothing to suggest a greater commentary. She is not the audience, she is not subtext. It doesn't fuel her passion, or disgust her, she doesn't invest in the process emotionally (even later in the film when she runs it herself). She just watches and doesn't like it a lot. Ultimately the interrogator leaves the torture program (he's seen too many naked bodies) – again this is not presented as judgement, just the limits of humanity (possibly even recounting actual events – the information surrounding this character is unclear).

The film progresses at pace, in sequences of data assimilation or deductive reasoning. Maybe Maya toughens up – she takes on the diatribes of her teacher and proceeds with interrogation showing greater ease. This feels like a natural progression for her character, and what we may assume happened in reality. She is up late nights analysing footage, she is relentless in her pursuit, passionate, tactless and demanding. She is praxis in an operation (the CIA) that seems constrained by political agenda.

However there is no story being told by Bigelow even on this front – this is not a movie about the failings of bureaucracy verse a 'lone ranger' type who fights the power and is heroically vindicated – even though that kind of happens! We are not invited to consider her as a hero or some greater more powerful asset then those of the enemy. She is smart, but as James Gandolfini reminds us "We're all fucking smart". She is driven and maniacal, but as the other female CIA agent discovers, this can end in tragic failure. Her CIA boss reminds us that unsubstantiated conclusions and irrational drive are as potentially (extremely!) wrong as they may be right. Maybe luck is the hero.

It may be that the spectator of truth in this film may be the great force that washes against the sharper edges of commentary in any story Bigelow may or may not have been trying to tell. This movie is one of two things, and to its tremendous credit, one of them is excellent, and I suspect the other is even better.

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Where: Blu-ray / DVD
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