ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012, Kathryn Bigelow): 8/10
I went into it afraid it could be more journalism than cinema, but make no mistake — this is very cinematic, even if that cinema was discovered at Dylan Tichenor’s editing bay. This is the fastest 157 minutes I’ve seen since THE DARK KNIGHT RISES if not faster, thanks in large part to Bigelow’s vision of a relentless pursuit by a doggedly determined Intelligence Agent. Jessica Chastain’s Maya absolutely will not stop until Osama bin Laden is dead, and her fiery passion is something at which her male superiors often chuckle behind her back. (The casual sexism of the military is subtext here, including one moment where James Gandolfini asks a colleague what he thinks of Maya, and he replies “She’s smart,” with the “for a girl” qualifier implied. Gandolfini replies “We’re all smart.” Boom.)
I don’t think a film that obsessively follows a procedure is necessarily good or bad — it depends on how that procedure is executed. In ZDT’s case, Boal’s detail-oriented screenplay does a nice job taking us from A to Z without too much confusion, but just enough surprises. Unlike THE HURT LOCKER, which suffered from wheel-spinning monotony and lack of narrative urgency (and it ended just as it was starting to tell a story), ZDT has a clear set of stakes and an endgame, creating singular tension despite the historical knowledge of the outcome.
Maya is the only character who gets fleshed out to any detail, though even she is still a bit of a cipher (something “Boalgelow” no doubt are intending, since her character has done “nothing” but hunt Osama for 10 years — allowing her to have no friends and fewer boyfriends). Characters enter and leave the story as their importance to the Osama manhunt rises and falls, including Jason Clarke’s expert waterboarder Dan and Kyle Chandler’s Joseph, who we know is a bureaucratic office chief because of his lame combover and stuffy tie.
Then again this film isn’t really concerned with the human element as much as it is the process of violence — because this is a war film. The war is the war on terror, but like any good war film, ZDT makes an effort to show the war’s casualties. And in this case, it’s the moral slipperiness of the methods of battle. While Obama is on TV assuring the people that America doesn’t torture people (and, now that Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have been shut down, perhaps that’s over), we’ve witnessed several scenes of punishing torture. And we’ve also seen that it’s no fun for either party; it’s not like the torturers have a shot of tequila with each face punch. When acts of terror like 9/11 are committed, and we enter the war on terror, it leads to a certain decay on both sides. We do unconscionable things worthy of no civilized person. We shove other humans into boxes and watch them soil themselves. We kill parents in front of their children and high-five about it. And Boalgelow are not glorifying this nor condemning it — it’s what it is, and it’s the casualty of this war. Whether it works or not (and the greatest bit of intel from a detainee actually happens by bluffing him, and having him deliver that info while sitting in fresh air eating a nice meal, as opposed to when he’s silent after being waterboarded — implying the efficacy of torture is questionable anyway), it’s what we’ve succumbed to in order to win. Nobody is a better person after fighting; it’s how you live with yourself afterwards, if you survive it.