Sunday, January 13, 2013

Everybody Breaks, Bro: Zero Dark Thirty

Let's start with torture, in part because Zero Dark Thirty's depiction of torture inspired controversy even before the movie was released, but mostly because that's where Zero Dark Thirty begins, and in a way it's where it ends, too. After a brief sequence in which the horrors of 9/11 are conjured through overlapping audio clips from that tragic and chaotic day, the movie opens at a secret military base at which an al-Qaeda terrorist is being "harshly interrogated." First we see the detainee waterboarded, and later he's stripped naked, dog-collared and stuffed inside a wooden box just big enough for him to fold into — all in an effort to get him to talk. None of this is brief. Director Kathryn Bigelow doesn't exactly ogle the brutality, but she doesn't shy away from it either. The first 30 minutes of the movie, scripted by Mark Boal and inspired by insider accounts, are dominated by the physical and psychological punishment of this beaten terrorist at the hands of the CIA. That Zero Dark Thirty spends so much time here confirms that Bigelow and Boal believe these interrogations to be historically significant, one way or another. And that torture is demonstrated to be a dehumanizing experience for both sides confirms that that Bigelow gets it right.

Did controversial interrogation techniques like waterboarding lead to intelligence that led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden? It seems silly to argue otherwise. The link might not have been direct, but the nasty reality is that these techniques were used and intelligence was gathered, and it seems reasonable to assume that some prisoners cooperated purely to avoid torture in the first place, which isn't possible if the potential for torture isn't on the table. Whether torture, as an actual technique or merely as a looming threat, is effective enough to justify its use is a different matter, and not one that Zero Dark Thirty cares to examine. So what does the film "say" about torture? Mostly that we did it, for better or worse. It's part of the history of that larger event. World War II had the beaches of Normandy and Higgins boats. The "war on terror" had undisclosed locations and pitchers of water. That's the way it was.

To ask the film to take sides on the torture debate, and even more to insist that it does, is to try to fit torture into a box and demand that it cooperate. It isn't that simple, and thankfully Zero Dark Thirty doesn't pretend otherwise. The film depicts, through the scene mentioned above, that some detainees can suffer all kinds of abuse and never crack, and that if they do talk it might be nothing more than a basic animal instinct to survive — saying whatever it takes to stop the abuse. It also makes it clear, in a later scene with the same prisoner, that torture can be effective as the "bad cop" alternative to a more friendly and productive "good cop" approach to intelligence mining. And, even later, in a scene in which a different detainee says he's willing to cooperate rather than be tortured, it demonstrates that the looming potential for torture can be an effective motivational tool. So, yeah, Zero Dark Thirty shows that torture "works." But it also leaves room to speculate that part of the reason it took so long to locate bin Laden is because the CIA and military couldn't come up with a more effective approach for hunting him down.

In some films, this kind of ambiguity would smack of gutlessness or faux complexity, but not here. No, here, Bigelow and Boal bravely refuse to oversimplify the unavoidably complicated — at least when it comes to torture. Other parts of the film feel a little too neat, particularly the way Boal funnels all of the momentum, tenacity and canniness of the hunt for bin Laden into a single character, Jessica Chastain's Maya, who comes off like a less reckless but equally omnipresent version of Homeland's Carrie Mathison. But such narrative efficiencies are mostly unavoidable, and because Zero Dark Thirty isn't about profiling "The Woman Who Brought Down Osama bin Laden" they're inconsequential, too. The film's approach is to recount the milestone moments in a manhunt that took years and was notable for being of great interest (bin Laden was America's most-wanted terrorist) and yet little urgency (bin Laden seemed so removed from the day-to-day operations of al-Qaeda that some wondered if he was anything more than a symbolic target). And it does exactly that, with Bigelow and Boal going so far as to separate each milestone into its own distinct chapter and only getting personal in order to reveal some of the swirling emotions motivating the CIA's actions, be they noble, ugly, foolish or something else.

All of this makes Zero Dark Thirty a departure from Bigelow and Boal's previous collaboration, The Hurt Locker, highlighted by an awesome performance from Jeremy Renner, which is designed to take us into a soldier's experience. With a few notable exceptions, this is a remarkably unemotional film, and sometimes it struggles when it strays from that reserve. (For example: Maya is almost exaggeratedly repulsed by her first exposure to torture, only to suddenly turn the corner and embrace physical punishment a few scenes later, an evolution that isn't exactly "developed.") That emotional distance serves the film's air of journalistic authenticity, making its Hollywood flourishes more obvious while appreciating the discovery and execution of bin Laden as evidence of American might rather than evidence of American character, which is a welcome break from the jingoistic norm.

Once the debates over Zero Dark Thirty's depictions of torture die down, what we'll remember about the movie is its depiction of the attack on bin Laden's compound, which is void of macho swagger (if that's the least embellished portion of the movie, it wouldn't surprise me). To the credit of an elucidating 60 Minutes interview with one of the members of SEAL Team 6, I had a good idea of how everything would unfold, but that credit rolls the other way, too. Bigelow presents the action from the soldiers' collective perspective — if they don't know if someone is lurking around the other side of a corner, we don't know either — which is a fitting way to portray an operation in which so much was known but so many blind spots remained, right up until the end. Speaking of which: When bin Laden is shot, there's nothing cinematic about it — he's a flash of movement in a doorway, and then he's gone. Many filmmakers would have been tempted to approach the scene closer to the way Tarantino shot the projection room shootout in Inglourious Basterds: with dramatic music and slow motion. But bin Laden's death was everything that 9/11 wasn't. It was brief, unremarkable and in front of a limited audience. Credit to Bigelow for staying true to that.

Despite knowing the Xs and Os ahead of time, what I couldn't appreciate until seeing it here was the patience of the strike on bin Laden's compound — assuming the film is even close to accurate. So many war movies portray military bravery through daring dashes across open spaces under enemy fire, but this one makes it clear that it took balls just being there, which helps explain why the strike wasn't authorized until everyone was convinced (within reason) that they'd find what they were looking for. Zero Dark Thirty ends with a shot that recalls The Graduate, of all things, with Maya on a plane back to the United States having found exactly what she was looking for but apparently without a clue what to do next. It's a shot that, like the torture scenes at the start of the film, implies the great lengths that someone like Maya would resort to in order to achieve success — making the hunt for bin Laden the sole focus of her life. And at the same time the shot also comments on the country's obsession with bin Laden. In the end, we got our man, and what we were left with was ourselves, and a lingering awareness of all we gave up in order to win.

Additional Thoughts ... Full of Spoilers:

* Although the raid on bin Laden's compound is easy to follow, while still giving a sense of the unavoidable "fog of war," Bigelow drops the ball a bit in the retreat. Unless I missed something, Bigelow shows two helicopters arriving and one of them crashing; then it shows one helicopter evacuating with men still on the ground; then it shows two helicopters landing safely back at the base.

* "I'm the motherfucker who found this place." That line, by Maya, is supposed to be Zero Dark Thirty's equivalent of "I'll be back." It's a good line. But it was better before Mark Duplass' character underlined it by repeating it with raised eyebrows. Great movie lines are allowed to own the moment.

* "We're all smart, Jeremy." That line, by James Galdolfini's nameless CIA director (read: Leon Panetta) in response to praise for Maya's smarts, has me puzzled. Is it meant to suggest defensiveness, as if Maya found bin Laden by being lucky, not by being gifted? Is it meant to skewer sexism, as if Maya's intelligence would be taken as a given if she were a male agent? Is it meant to remind the audience that the CIA is full of smart, hard-working people, and so finding bin Laden took a long time simply because the task was hard? Something else?

* As much as it was nice to see Maya portrayed as a strong, tough, determined woman — and without removing her femininity — I was a little disappointed by the number of scenes in which the men around Maya regard her like some PMSing bitch whose intensity is regarded as melodrama.

* I'm torn in regard to the device in which Maya notes the days of inaction on the office window with a red marker. It's a little corny, which is an out-of-place mood in this picture. And yet it conveys that period of inactivity between "discovering" bin Laden and taking action much better than if Bigelow had simply flashed some dates on the screen.

* I'm no fan of torture, but whenever someone suggests that torture is purely ineffective I think of that poor guy's head in a vise in Casino. Just watching that scene makes me want to start talking. What do you want to know?


Richard Bellamy said...

Well done, here, Jason. You point out aspects of the film that I really appreciated - the fleeting nature of the killing that doesn't turn it into a dramatic Hollywood payback moment; the matter-of-fact portrayal of the torture, investigation, and raid - sometimes its toneless, but that's better than forcing our emotions in one direction or another.

I like your analysis of the final scene - Maya crying. Many interpretations are possible - but I like it that way.

You are ambivalent about the marker montage. I found it ultimately irritating - a couple of times, or three times spaced over a long range of numbers, would have been enough.

As for the third helicopter, it may be unclear, but that's a Chinook helicopter that was kept in reserve and is sent in to take the rest of them out. Actually, the made-for-DVD movie Seal Team Six, which also depicts the raid, clearly shows a reserve helicopter coming in for them. In Zero Dark Thirty, I guess it's not clear where the third helicopter is coming from, but it comes in just before they blow up the downed copter. In fact, they call in to it to warn it that it is getting too close to the explosion.

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: On the helicopter: I'd vaguely remembered how they were removed, but in terms of how it's depicted on the screen I thought it was confusing. I thought the helicopter they ordered away from the blast was the first helicopter, taking off with many of the SEALs and bin Laden's corpse. Perhaps during the scene someone mentions a third helicopter, but I didn't think they did a great job of establishing that. Although I'm not discounting the possibility that I missed something obvious.

jake said...

I saw this today!

1) I turned to my sister early in the film and said: I hope to god people don't cheer when they finally get Bin Laden. We were both concerned it would be presented in such a way that it would arouse patriotic clapping or something, and we were so relieved when it was presented probably more like it actually is: fucked up and nightmarish. To break into a compound and shoot guys (and gals) in front of their families and kids - it's sobering no matter who it is.

2) I totally agree about your point regarding how they repeatedly had male characters practically rolling their eyes in a "Agh, women: so dramatic" fashion every time Chastain pushed her agenda. That was annoying.

3) For as masterful as Bigelow's direction is - and I think she's phenomenal - all of us today were a bit confused by how clumsily the Afghanistan car bomb sequence played out - it was so painfully obvious and kind of unbelievable how that unraveled on screen. By the time it cuts to the inevitable wide-shot-sudden-expolsion bit, we were all like "Duh! No shit that was gonna happen!" It didn't seem as slick or realistic as her other sequences and felt 'wrong,' from a filmmaking standpoint. Were we supposed to know well ahead of time and have to suffer the tension of the inevitable? What point was that trying to make?

4) It seemed like Chastain and her cohort gave one another these "Oh, great, no more torture?" looks during Obama's televised "Americans don't torture" speech. Later on, it comes up again when they can't just kidnap the courier ("We can't do anything without our detainee program"). Then they figure out (with much risk) how to complete their mission without torturing anybody else, though it seemed to take a while and involve a lot of chance and luck.

I like that the issue was presented as complex and multi-faceted like this. The film was pretty apolitical in this regard, which I deeply respected.

Your reviews are so great, thanks.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Jason - I was ambivalent about the last moment, at first, but what I loved about it was that it stretched out long enough, fully ITSELF, that it gave me time to breathe into it, to think about it, to wonder about it. That's no small feat in a film like this one, and I am glad I had the time (in general) for my ambivalence. It seems fitting.

I'm not ambivalent about the rest of the film. I loved it. One of the things I loved were the two "dressing-down" scenes, as I think of them: with the guy bitch-slapping the table of CIA operatives, basically saying, "WTF have you done for me lately" and then the one between Chastain and her boss in the hallway. These scenes are normally a dime a dozen in films like this. Here, though, there was a jagged edge - both to the dialogue as written, and to the acting. Because, of course, such scenes are NOT only cliches (people are "dressed down" in real life all the time) - it's just that most films are lazy and rely on cliche "Here's the big Dressing Down scene where so-and-so pulls out a can of Whupass." ZDT allowed for the mess in such confrontations, and there were times when I actually found myself holding my breath during the one between Chastain and her boss. It transcended the cliche: it was real. The film is full of such moments, and it just added to the overall ambivalent/dark/amoral feeling to the film.

And yeah, there was a third helicopter, a Chinook, in reserve. It wasn't clear in the film, so much - the whole convo, if I recall, in the film, was about the Black Hawks and not wanting a Somalia Repeat, etc. - I'd have to see the film again to see if it was mentioned more specifically, but I missed it. I just knew about it cause I read Bowden's book and No Easy Day, right before I saw the film.

That raid scene, and the helicopters flying in from Pakistan in that darkness: goosebumps. So good. "Jake", I didn't see it as "fucked up" and "nightmarish". I saw it as guys with a mission, who were well trained, who had learned the lessons of Somalia, and who kept their cool as much as possible in a situation that could have gone South in a way that would have reverb lasting decades.

But my EXPERIENCE of watching that sequence was excruciating. Even though I knew how it all played out. So well done.

Sheila O'Malley said...

And I could have done without the marker. Although I love how she played it.

Craig said...

I guess I agree with both Sheila and Jake on the raid (which I think will go down as one of the great action set-pieces in cinema). Bigelow admires the SEALs' professionalism, and even their surprising physical grace (David Denby remarked on how agile they appear despite being older and heavier than we might expect). But she doesn't shy away from the collateral damage and uglier aspects of the job. I liked that Fares Fares - the translator and (presumably) Muslim member of the team - is given a reaction shot to the victims. It's just one detail among many that go whirling by in that sequence.

And I loved that red marker: it's a light gag, it denotes the passage of time, it gets some momentum going in the editing and prepares us for the homestretch. Not as memorable as the torture. Nor the raid. Nor "motherfucker." Maybe memorable moment No. 4 or 5.

jake said...

Sheila, I should clarify: I guess what I meant by "fucked up" and "nightmarish" was more along the lines of the experience I had watching it, like you say.

I put it that way to kind of reinforce my gratitude to the filmmakers for presenting the situation in such a way that we weren't sitting in the audience going "Woo! Get the bad guy! Kill Osama!" The way it was presented was raw and ugly and intense and, in some ways, anti-climactic; OBL pops out briefly and then he's gone. He's not made out to be this sinister, towering villain, he's just another casualty in this compound who's more or less doomed the minute the chopper lands.

Honestly, a mediocre director could have really handled that sequence poorly.

The red marker stuff we all though was a little cheesy and out of touch with the straight forward, gritty, almost doc-like realism that characterized the majority of the movie. Overall the film was so heavy and intense that I couldn't be bothered to perk up for cute gags like that, even though maybe it was there to relieve us from said intensity. I dunno, didn't seem necessary to me.

Amazing, amazing movie though.

Jeremy said...

I didn't think anything was gonna surpass my love of Django Unchained for Favorite Film of 2012, but here it is. That was a great fuckin' movie. That's one of those films you walk out of pumped up, not in that America Fuck Yeah way, but in that "WOW that was an awesome movie that WASN'T the rah rah America got him film I thought it was!"

The helicopter bit confused me as well. Looked like two dudes were still on the ground, thing blew up, helicopter sailed off without 'em.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Yes, the raid certainly wasn't played out as a cathartic climax, so much as a the end of a very long hard road. That felt very appropriate to me. I loved the score. It was ominous - not rousing. It made total sense in the context of the film - which was such a claustrophobic world. Or, not claustrophobic so much as a Bell Jar. My favorite part of the film, from the portrayal of torture, to the dressing-down scenes, to the raid itself - was that we were fully immersed in the culture at hand. I prefer movies that go full immersion into the worlds they portray, and do not pontificate at me, lecture, or tell me what/how to think. I know how to think already, thankyouverymuch! :)

And yes, the raid scene works because even though you know how it ends, it still never ever seems like a done deal until they are out of there. And that's reality. That's how all military actions go down. The memory of Somalia is a living memory to those people. When that Black Hawk Down went down - it was almost like a PTSD flashback of those horrifying images of US soldiers being dragged through the streets. The fact that they incorporated that disaster into their mission (Okay, now onto Plan B ...), and that it didn't go much worse than it did - is still fairly incredible. The raid scene captures that deadly uncertainty. Gripping filmmaking.

And the film can "take" a lot of different responses. I was proud of those guys in that compound. Not in a "rah rah" way, but because of my own background/experiences/well-formed and well-thought-out opinions.

I loved most of all the space that the film gave me to have all my feelings/emotions/thoughts activated. A very rigorous experience. Dark, philosophical, challenging.

Patrick said...

Everyone else already addressed the third helicopter, it is shown flying in, but it isn't really highlighted, so it could be a bit confusing.

The other thing you questioned - we're all smart - I took to mean that while Maya was sure it was bin Laden in the compound, and whoever Panetta was talking to said she was smart meaning she was probably right, what Panetta meant was that there were also skeptics, and they were smart too, so who's argument should be given the greatest weight?

Thought it was a very good movie, and as others have said, especially the raid on the compound. When I heard about it after the fact, took less than an hour, no one hurt, I thought it sounded simple, but as filmed you can see it was pretty tense. I like that little detail they added of the locals starting to come towards the compound.

Jason Bellamy said...

All: I just wanted to drop a note to say thank you for the comments. It's been a long week for me in the day job, which has had me working nonstop 18-hour days three times this week. But I've loved seeing the comments come in. I'm traveling tomorrow, but I hope to respond to some of these thoughts soon. I'm grateful to have you reading this blog.

Dan O. said...

Another solid film from Bigelow and one that I wish got her enough recognition for all that she put into this material. Nice review Jason.

Anonymous said...

Jake said:

"OBL pops out briefly and then he's gone. He's not made out to be this sinister, towering villain, he's just another casualty in this compound..."

Yeah, uh, except he wasn't "just another casualty"; he actually was this sort of "sinister, towering villain" who, y'know, orchestrated (or helped orchestrate, if you prefer) the cold-blooded slaughter of thousands of people whose only crime that day was showing up to work or getting on an airplane. And regardless of the U.S.'s involvement in the affairs of other lands, regardless of what you may or may not see as America having done something to bring 9/11 on itself -- cold-blooded slaughter is cold-blooded slaughter. He was a villain. The world is better off without him. And, though I didn't cheer as if I were watching a touchdown at a football game, I did feel a surge of pride when I first heard the news of his death.

You sound young, Jake -- very young, in fact. I may not be able to drum any sense into your head but what I can do is suggest that you remember the sacrifices that the men and women of the armed forces make so that you can sit there and feel embarrassed by displays of patriotic fervor.

Mr. Bellamy:

Spot-on review. I've just returned from a late night screening of the movie but your review pretty accurately sums up my take on it thus far.

I think the film's approach to the subject of torture is appropriately muted. We know such tactics were employed. And we're right to feel conflicted -- very conflicted -- about that. And yet, it would be disingenuous, to say the least, to deny that the use of torture probably put us closer to finding bin Laden than we'd have been without it.

Likewise, it would be silly in the extreme to pretend as if we were dealing with people who would have responded to a more civilized approach if only we had thought to use it. We're talking men and women whose goal was/is nothing less than the total annihilation of the "evil" West. We're talking men and women who strap themselves with explosives and walk into a town square filled with women, children and the elderly because their god will grant them glory for doing so. These are not people likely to respond to our kindly U.N.-approved Western logic.

Torture works.
Torture also doesn't work.
Some things may be necessary for the greater good, no matter how unpalatable they may be, no matter the mental and spiritual toll they take on those who sanction them.

In other breaking news: the world is a complex, ugly place.

Dil Ki Nazar Se Khoobsurat 2013 said...

I put it that way to kind of reinforce my gratitude to the filmmakers for presenting the situation in such a way that we weren't sitting in the audience going "Woo! Get the bad guy! Kill Osama!" The way it was presented was raw and ugly and intense and, in some ways, anti-climactic; OBL pops out briefly and then he's gone. He's not made out to be this sinister, towering villain, he's just another casualty in this compound who's more or less doomed the minute the chopper lands.

Sam Juliano said...

I never posted under this tremendous review which I pretty much agree with in total. Hope to see you back at THE COOLER, though I can well imagine you are busy.

aryan said...

At the very least, I think we need to stop writing these types of historically-based stories off as just being 'entertainment' and therefore above any sort of fact checking or criticism.

aryan said...

instead of giving this a price for outstanding cinema, we could see it as an allegory of american ignorance of the rest of the world