ZERO DARK THIRTY
a review by James Kislingbury
Fear and pain can do incredible things and Zero Dark Thirty reminds us of that. It’s a well played procedural thriller that is based firmly in the characters of this world. It’s as much a piece of art as it is a remembrance of the past twelve years. It’s both exciting without being crass and mournful without being a dirge.This careful balance of fiction and facts is what makes it such a deeply satisfying work of art.
This movie is based on known quantities. It’s reliant on them. From the very first seconds of the film, we’re reminded of what kicked off this whole mess in the first place. From there it launches into another topic (and another important plot point), which is the government’s policy of, ahem, “enhanced interrogations.” It’s one of a few things we already have feelings about, which range from suicide bombs to government incompetence to the raid itself, but where the movie becomes more than a collection of facts is how these things are handled.
It doesn’t take much to recite what we know (we have 60 Minutes for that) and it isn’t much of a leap after that to make us feel how we’re supposed to feel (Answer: Bad.), what does take skill is to use these images (or not use them in the case of 9/11) to tell a compelling story in a way that isn’t obvious or exploitative. It can’t be easy to draw up a film like that and maybe there’s a reason it took 11 years for a movie like this to happen.
It is either because of or in spite of this irony that Zero Dark Thirty works so well. The scenes where you don’t know what is going to happen are just as riveting as the ones where you know exactly how they will end. I find it incredible that this film can lean so heavily on things that we already know and still find ways to surprise me. It’s for this reason that I want to avoid spoilers, for this movie is so much more than Osama bin Laden being shot in the face.
Though, that was pretty alright too.
Now, since I have to: Let’s rap about torture.
The torture is handled as brilliantly as a subject like that can be handled. It isn’t handled like an argument or a topic of discussion. It isn’t evidence or a plea for your emotions. It is just a thing that happened.
It is done dispassionately and as (seemingly) objective as possible. Bigelow doesn’t harp on about the mistakes (or even the gains) of the “detainee program,” rather it lets us develop our own opinions and feelings by showing us what it actually looks like. No news anchors or Basil Expositions in the background telling us what this means, there’s just couple of men in a room and one of them is chained to a ceiling beam and has a bucket of water being poured in their face.
But, because it is torture, it isn’t just a thing that happened. It’s torture and, worse yet, torture in our name. And we’re watching it happen to a human being and not in a way that proves that James Bond is dealing with rough customers or because Jack Bauer needs answers, but because it is an unavoidable truth of this manhunt and of a few planes stuffed full of people slamming into buildings.
Zero Dark Thirty gives its audience the credit to come to their own conclusion and, when it shows a man in a dog collar covered in his own feces, it also trust that they’ll come to the right conclusion.
What an idea.
I’m interested to watch this movie is ten or fifteen years with people who are children now. I want to see what people who couldn’t possibly remember the morning of 9/11 think about this movie, because they never felt the rage or the fear that I know I felt and that I know a lot of other people felt. I wonder how this movie is going to age, how it’s going to be felt by people who don’t remember September 11th or people who weren’t even born when it happened.
We all live in a world affected by it, so not matter what there is that connection, there is just something about remembering what it was like to be that afraid and that angry and seeing what people do with it. There’s this sense that we are doing this for you that makes the whole of the movie that much more frightening and that much more sad. Even when we get to the end, even if it was worth it, we can’t undo the things we did because we had one bad day.
Maybe that’s too soliphistic of a point to make. With that said, with a movie as well constructed as this one, I can’t imagine it was too far outside the minds of its creators.
Without giving too much away, the final shot is something of a Kuleshov Effect. Without dialogue, without a response, and without any real anchor to the rest of the movie, it leaves you to puzzle out the meaning using what you've just seen. It’s the movie’s thesis in brief. Looking at this character and the background and where they are and what has just happened it is clear that Kathryn Bigelow is saying much more about her subject than she needs to put into words.
On its surface Zero Dark Thirty is a tense, intelligent thriller that works perfectly as what its tagline claims to be, “The ultimate manhunt.” Beneath that, though, it’s an important meditation on where we are and how we got here as Americans, as well the price of fanaticism. It’s a movie about emotions as much as it is about logic, as well as obliterating these things out of fear. Zero Dark Thirty skillfully transcends all of the stumbling blocks and talking points of the War on Terror to deliver a riveting film. Basically, it’s the best movie about the mess we're in that has ever been made.