Note: This is pretty spoilery, but let’s be honest. You know how it ends.
Zero Dark Thirty has been shrouded in controversy. Both sides of this countries political spectrum have attacked it. Initially, some on the right were outraged a film about the death of Osama Bin Laden would be released during an election year. They claimed the film was made to boost Obama’s ratings and help him win the 2012 election. First of all, most of you won’t see the film until mid-January, and incase you didn’t know, Obama won the 2012 election a month and a half ago. So…. Yeah. Secondly, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal were working on this film long before Bin Laden was killed May 1st, 2011 and actually had to scramble and change the film was his death occured. If Bin Laden had never been killed the film still would have been released this year, and then what? The left would have complained the film hurts Obama’s image by reminding us Bin Laden is still out there during an election year?
Speaking of the left, some have claimed Bigelow’s film endorses torture and has a very, “Hoorah!” attitude. I’ve even heard the film referred to as literal torture porn. This is something I was incredibly interested in going into the film because I clearly remember the night I learned about Bin Laden’s death. September 11th affected the whole country, and the death of the man behind it felt like closure for myself and a lot of other people who never received any. However, I don’t believe in celebrating the death of another human being. These conflicting thoughts and feelings left me numb and confused. That night was full of black and white media coverage and massive celebration. Absolute good triumphed over absolute evil, but I knew the war on terror was not black and white. The United States has done many many terrible things that lead to 9/11 and many terrible things in response to it. Would Zero Dark Thirty present the many shades of grey associated with the hunt for Osama Bin Laden? Or would it present a feel good, black and white story that allows us to celebrate and cheer the moment Bin Laden is killed?
In my opinion, Zero Dark Thirty does not glorify torture. The film is very objective. It shows us what happened and it’s up to us to determine how we feel about it. I think a lot of people are used to being told what to think and mistake the clinical representation of these events as condoning torture. However, showing and endorsing are not the same thing. A lot of people are misinterpreting what’s happening in the film, have already made up their mind before they’ve seen the film, or worse, actively lie about what happens in the film to better support their own arguments. After all, how can we confront them when we haven’t seen the film? Many have claimed this is the sequence of events in the film: Chastain’s character and the CIA physically and mentally torture prisoners, get information, find Bin Laden. This is not true. Chastain and the CIA torture a prisoner in the beginning of the film, but he gives them no information. Over and over he refuses to tell them anything. They get the information from him by tricking him.
You can argue the film says they were able to trick him because of all torture he was subjected to, but in a scene where Chastain watches countless interrogation tapes that involve and don’t involve torture the film goes out of it’s way to show that she found the same information from many people who were not tortured at all. Every prisoner that was tortured in the tapes said nothing. Plus, the film shows multiple terrorists attacks that happen while the CIA is still using torture techniques. Wouldn’t a pro-torture film ignore those events to perpetuate their pro-torture agenda? In the context of the whole film it seems pretty obvious Zero Dark Thirty is not pro-torture. Furthermore, the idea that is glorifies torture is asinine. These sequences are disturbing and sickening. There’s nothing enjoyable about watching these scenes, and if you understand cinematic language it’s glaringly obvious we’re meant emphasize with the people being tortured. The CIA agents are the monsters.
I’ve also seen a few people claim members of the CIA consistently complain when they can’t torture detainees anymore. Apparently, these scenes prove the filmmakers endorse torture. Again, I’m not sure what film these people were watching because there’s literally one moment (maybe two) where a member of the CIA complains he can’t torture people for information anymore. More importantly, and I can’t believe I actually have to say this, but just because a character thinks something doesn’t mean the filmmakers feel the same way! It’s almost like a lot of people forgot how films work. You can’t make every character believe in your own ideology. It’d be boring and there would be no conflict, and films are nothing without conflict. What Zero Dark Thirty really does is present real, flawed characters that actually did think torture worked. The film never says they’re right, but how could you tell this story without characters that believed that?
Let’s move on to the raid sequence. This is the scene that’s spawned all the “Hoorah!” comments. The argument is this is sequence does nothing but glorify violence committed by the United States. That it’s some Hollywood-ized action sequence that builds and builds until it crescendos with Bin Laden required death and our cheers and applause. In reality, this scene is incredibly realistic, unsettling, and surprisingly subtle. There’s hardly any music. The soldiers kill civilians, even women. They kill almost everyone that stands in their way, and it’s disturbing. There’s nothing fun about this sequence. Honestly, it made me sick. And when that big moment comes. When they finally kill Bin Laden, no one really realizes it until a few seconds later. The moments that follow are incredibly human. In anger, one soldier shoots him a couple more times. The man who kills him is dumbstruck. When he tells a fellow soldier what he did the other soldier replies, “Help us pack.” As all this happens Bigelow lingers on the carnage they left in their wake: the dead bodies, the blood, the scared and parentless children. Not exactly,the pro-military, patriotic propaganda many have claimed.
Soooo, how is the film? It’s great. Zero Dark Thirty is easily one of the best films of the year, and probably the most consistent from start to finish. It had me on the edge of my seat the entire time. It’s gritty, realistic, and incredibly smart. It doesn’t hold anyone’s hand and moves forward with the expectation you already have some knowledge about the CIA’s war on terror. Jessica Chastain is brilliant. Her performance is incredibly subtle and nuanced. We feel all the tension and anxiety she’s bottling up inside of her, and the couple moments where she unleashes this pent up agression are truly breathtaking. Bigelow directs the hell out of the film and I can’t give her enough credit for being brave enough to show us what happens without spoon feeding us.
Bigelow has also crafted the most powerful feminist film this year. Some have claimed the film is feminist because Chastain’s character is just as strong and smart as the guys, but feminism is also the acknowledgement that men and women aren’t treated equally. Zero Dark Thirty is full of small, nuanced scenes and details.When Chastain’s boss sees her the first time he’s immediately drawn to her looks and a colleague replies, “I told you.” The moment is quick and the movie doesn’t address it again, but the implications and others like it permeate every frame the rest of the film. The way Jessica Chastain competes with Jennifer Ehle’s character when she enters the CIA is so honest and true. Both woman know they have to work harder than the man that surround them to gain respect and that anxiety forces them that take their frustration out on each other. They have to be right, and if they have to cut each other down to do it they will. This dynamic creates tension filled situations that do nothing but hurt each other. As their reputations grow these characters become best friends. The men in the CIA will never understand the obstacles these women had to overcome to get where they are. Even after Chastain’s character finds Bin Laden’s hide out, the head of the CIA asks an other man, “What do you think of the girl?” Like it’s a big surprise, he replies, “She’s fucking smart.” Even after Bin Laden is killed! And she IDs him the other characters still call her “the girl.” Bigelow’s point is provocative and powerful. As a woman, you can succeed where countless men have failed, but men will still attempt to subtley disempower you.
Zero Dark Thirty gave me the same uneasy feeling I had when I found out Bin Laden died. I can’t think of another film that’s made me feel so many conflicting thoughts and emotions, and I think this is what makes Zero Dark Thirty so brilliant. Because it objectively shows you so many issues you are forced confront your own hypocrisies. How can you be anti-war but celebrate the death of a human being? Can you justify killing so many innocent people to kill one man? Is it really worth it? If so, why do you feel so strongly about it? Who made you feel this way? These hard questions force us to look inside ourselves and confront our innermost demons. If we never acknowledges our faults and confront them, we can never grow as an individual or a nation.
Final Grade: A