Experiencing Zero Dark Thirty

Posted: December 31, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

Everyone knows how the story begins. Everyone knows how the movie ends. What happened in between is known by a few, but will never be known by all. That’s Zero Dark Thirty, the new movie by Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow that details and dramatizes the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the subsequent raid that killed him in May 2011.

Zero Dark Thirty isn’t playing nationwide yet — that doesn’t happen until January — but I saw it last week in the city. It’s one of the great benefits to living in New York — having early access to something that everyone is talking about, even if hardly anyone can actually watch it.

Controversy has followed the film ever since it was known Bigelow would follow her Oscar-winning effort with a movie about the hunt for bin Laden. Originally the movie was going to end like most people thought the real-life tale would end — with no real conclusion, with bin Laden still free, location unknown, same as his fate. The NAVY SEALS raid ended that movie, but created another. There have been complaints from both sides of the political aisle. Did someone leak classified information? How much that’s depicted on the screen actually happened off it? And does the movie argue that torture played a role in finding bin Laden?

Those debates will continue as the movie opens in the more theaters across the country. They’ll continue around Oscar time, because there’s no doubt Zero Dark Thirty will be up for best picture, Bigelow will be up for best director and Jessica Chastain will be up for best actress.

And they all disappear for more than two hours when you’re actually in the theater watching the movie. It’s certainly the most intense movie-viewing experience of the year. The movie starts with recorded phone calls from September 11. Real phone calls, from real victims stuck on the planes or the Towers. There’s no video of the carnage that day, the famous visual images that are seared in our memory. Only the voices. No matter where you see the movie, it’ll have an emotional impact, but there’s something about seeing it in New York, knowing that some of the victims surely sat in the same theater I was in on 68th Street and Broadway, that brought back the images of that day, even as they stayed off the screen in Zero Dark Thirty.

There are two parts to the film: The search and the raid. The raid takes place over the final 30 minutes, following the SEALS from liftoff to their return to the base with bin Laden’s body. Bigelow’s an incredible action director — say what you will about Point Break and Keanu’s accent and career as a college quarterback that was destroyed by his bad knee and his declaration that he’s an “Eff.Bee.I Agent” but there are some great action sequences. It takes us from outside the compound bin Laden lived in to inside and shows men and women being shot and children terrorized. The movie has many of the characteristics of countless other war films, but this happened and Bigelow hides nothing. Obviously everyone knows that none of the SEALS died and that they shot bin Laden but the direction, camera-work and overall tension — especially as the neighbors emerge from their homes to check on the disturbance — had me leaning forward in my seat.

Chastain is of course absent from the raid but she dominates everything else in the film. Her character Maya, based on a real CIA agent, tracks bin Laden for years and endures doubts from superiors and the deaths of several friends. The character could almost seem cliche — how many movies include the cop/soldier/analyst who doesn’t listen to the boss and does things their own way? — but this woman really did play a key role in finding bin Laden, as detailed in a Washington Post story. Leads prove either fruitless or lead to tragedy. Colleagues leave the hunt or die. She stays on the track, even after so many others moved on. Imagine the real-life Maya watching the movie, maybe with a date who knows nothing of her career.

The early part of the movie depicts several torture scenes, the source of much of the controversy over the movie, as people in the know say the information that led to bin Laden’s location did not come from tortured detainees. Personally I don’t think the movie says otherwise. There’s no a-ha moment after those scenes, only more frustration about more leads that lead to more frustration, until finally Maya and others cobble together enough info to find bin Laden’s courier, and then bin Laden himself.

Zero Dark Thirty isn’t an easy movie to sit through. It’s nearly impossible to watch the beginning and impossible to look away at the end. People will debate the accuracy and the ethics. It’s not an easy movie — but it is unforgettable.

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Comments
  1. Rich Jensen says:

    I’m not going to lie and say I don’t know how I feel about using victim phone calls. I do know how I feel. I’m disgusted by it.

    Why?

    Because using those phone calls is a calculated ploy. I am generally cynical about the movie industry (as I am about the recording industry), and even more cynical about movies that are presented almost as ‘public services’, movies that deal with The Serious Issues Of Our Times.

    Essentially, these movies are grist in the same mill that churned out the Transformers monstrosities and the Twilight abominations.

    Step 1: Know your audience

    Step 2: Know how to achieve the desired emotional impact

    Step 3: Cash the checks.

    Step 4: (If it’s a Serious Movie)–collect the trophies.

    Essentially, no material is off-limits for Hollywood in pursuit of profit. In ten years, if there’s a movie about Newtown, it will probably begin with parents’ frantic calls to 911 to find out about their kids. The movie may be about One Person’s Fight To Ban Assault Weapons, or it may be about Courageous People Who Sacrificed Their Lives, but it will certainly be about delivering profits to the studio.

    And, as with this movie, everything that enhances profitability will be on the table, including raw and still fresh material that is not the commercialization of faked pain and suffering, rather the commercialization of very real pain and suffering.

  2. shawnfury says:

    Rich, is it the fact the real audio was used or the fact it’s only 11 years after the event that you most object to? Titanic and Pearl Harbor, two horrific events that led to thousands of deaths, become romantic films decades later. Leaving aside the merits of the movies from artistic level, was it okay to dramatize those real-life tragedies at all? Would it be okay to do the same for September 11 in 60 years but not a decade later?

    Or is it the real, raw audio that’s most objectionable? In a strange way, would it have been less objectionable to actually see the Towers collapse, because that footage is something we’ve seen so often that we might be desensitized, whereas the calls are so personal? Was it wrong for Spielberg to profit from the Holocaust and use real survivors in Schindler’s List?

    I don’t know if I even totally disagree with your assessment — I don’t totally agree with it either — but I have thought for awhile about real life being brought to the screen and what, if any, lines shouldn’t be crossed. (This is the type of comment I was talking about you when I included you in my Smart Company post last week; you always make me think).

  3. Rich Jensen says:

    What I find most objectionable is the real, raw audio, and second to that (barely second), is the immediacy. Most of us can recall 9/11 as though they happened yesterday.

    I can’t imagine any circumstance in which I would find use of that audio to be appropriate for a commercial product, even a documentary or journalistic endeavor, much less a commercial product that is not directly connected to the event itself.

    But then, I’m a bit straitlaced about this sort of thing. The stories of sacrifice that came out of 9/11 belong to all of us, the same as with the Titanic, Newtown, etc. I say that because in the end, we’re all people, and there’s a value in reflecting on what ordinary people can do under extraordinary circumstances.

    However, the suffering is not ours. Of course, reasonable people can differ when it comes to the question of whether a movie (for instance) trades too much on the suffering of others (I’m not a fan of Schindler’s List, although I respect Spielberg for having reservations about making the film in the first place, and for exercising restraint in making it).

    The thing I look for is some sense that the director (if we’re talking about movies) is aware of that distinction–is ethical enough to choose to leave things out that may be included.

    To use the death of about 2,800 people (Pearl Harbor), or 1,500 people (Titanic) as a plot device in an implausible and fictional love story bothers me.

    Take Jack in Titanic: Real people chose to stay on board in order for others to escape. Real life, honest to goodness flesh and blood people put the lives of others ahead of their own; however, the movie focuses not on them, but on a fictional character who flees the ship, and dies of hypothermia. Somewhat absurdly, we are supposed to be moved by the more or less pointless death of a fictional character who tried to escape and failed, not the true stories of heroism that also took place.

    I would say that once the immediacy of an event passes, the question of how the event is treated is of paramount importance. There are no hard and fast rules, but there should be some effort to self-regulate, to develop and apply a principled approach. This? It’s very hard to see this as anything more than a grotesque effort to get you somber and/or angry, in order for you to feel somber and/or victorious when Bin Laden is killed.

  4. Rich Jensen says:

    By the way, thanks for the mention in the “Smart Company” post. The Walker Evans project proceeds apace. I have a Library of Congress Control Number (the 63rd they issued in 2013), and am trying to get the formatting and copy just-so.

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