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This Is What Defeat Looks Like: Zero Dark Thirty Reviewed
Jason Ward , January 25th, 2013 09:37

Jason Ward reviews Kathryn Bigelow's dramatisation of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden

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The death of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 was a major inconvenience for Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow. At the time of the fatal raid in Abbottabad, the screenwriter/director team behind The Hurt Locker were in the middle of developing a film about the US' post-September 11th failure to apprehend Bin Laden in the Tora Bora caves. Understandably, the successful killing of Bin Laden demolished their project overnight.

After a period of adjustment, the pair broadened the planned film's scope to encompass the entire decade-long search for the terrorist, with Boal granted extensive and unprecedented access to classified CIA intelligence about the mission. While the extent of Boal's access raised early concerns that the film would be a hagiographical depiction of the organisation, in retrospect the film's proximity to both to events and the people behind them has produced a film of unexpected power, arising as a deliberate result of its dispassionate, journalistic approach.

The decade following the September 11th attacks has seen countless depictions of counter-terrorism both historical and contemporary, mining a rich vein of suspense, paranoia and murky ethics. Zero Dark Thirty's accuracy is a key part of its marketing strategy, selling itself as the true, untold story of the clandestine hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Partially a consequence of being released in the same year, Zero Dark Thirty invites direct comparison with Argo, Ben Affleck's retelling of the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis. While Argo is also based on a true story, the filmmakers heighten the drama through the addition of fictional events, culminating in an airport chase which never actually happened. The story is still fundamentally true, but has been embellished to be more thrilling and emotionally satisfying.

There's nothing atypical or necessarily wrong about this approach, of course, but Argo makes a deliberate attempt to vouch for its own authenticity, concluding with a sequence displaying images of the film's actors alongside photographs of their real-life counter-parts: logic suggesting that if the characters look so much like the real people then surely the story must be equally accurate. Boal and Bigelow didn't have this option. Where Argo is a period piece, Zero Dark Thirty takes place over the last few years, and while the "Canadian Caper" Argo depicts was international news, the level of its profile was nothing compared to the search for Bin Laden. Any attempt to sex up the film would have caused massive controversy in a story already brimming with difficult moral choices, from torture to the occupation of entire countries.

Zero Dark Thirty is fortunate historically in that it has an action-packed third act already built in − SEAL Team Six's raid on Bin Laden's compound − but even so, the film consistently eschews action in favour of confusion and malaise. Continuing the approach they employed in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and Boal demonstrate a conviction that process is as interesting as action – believing that their story is exciting enough without artificial roadblocks and emotional enough without complicated back-stories or character motivations. Focusing primarily on fledgling CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), the film demonstrates an admirable disregard for the sympathetic crutches usually given to main characters. The audience isn't given any details about Maya beyond what's relevant to the story: she doesn't have any relationships, family members, friends, or even a surname. The most we see of her private life is a few moments of her sitting on her sofa at the end of a long day, exhausted. While this emphasises her single-mindedness and dedication to her task, it's also emblematic of the film's detached manner and the conscious decision to avoid artificiality, or appear to at least.

The film's impassive journalistic tone is equally striking in its representation of how the mission was conducted. Boal's script strives to not make political points, offering images without commenting directly upon them. This is most evident in the now-notorious scenes of torture, a CIA strategy which is shown to be appropriately horrifying and one that produces unreliable results. Considering its prominence in the CIA's pre-Abu Ghraib intelligence-gathering procedures, its absence would be conspicuous: the torture of detainees is a part of the story, and so it's a part of the film (but not the only part, despite a score of opinion pieces from those wishing to use the film to rehash old battles.)

Without the benefit of hindsight that the audience possesses, Maya spends most of the film stumbling around in search of her quarry, pursuing dead ends, leads gone cold, and men who may or may not be alive. Anything less than this would be unfaithful to the reality of the task, but it's also a brilliant narrative device. By making frustrated stagnation occupy the bulk of the narrative and largely withholding its action until the end, Zero Dark Thirty ensures that its climax is immensely satisfying. Excluding the raid's target and the lengthy, extraordinary circumstances which led to it happening, the operation itself is fairly straightforward, and yet if the film had been littered with gunfights and ticking clock scenes then it wouldn't be nearly as tense. Instead, the Abbottabad raid is one of the most gripping sequences of the year − a flash flood after two hours of drizzle.

Structuring the film in this way is as much of an attempt at audience manipulation as Argo's fictional additions, but it somehow feels more gratifying, more real. Boal and Bigelow manage to have things both ways: Zero Dark Thirty affects the appearance of a docudrama while smuggling in a familiar narrative. As a driven outsider, smothered by bureaucratic superiors and obsessed with vengeance as others lose interest, Maya's journey is conventional, even though the mission's historic nature and the avoidance of intimacy disguises this. Halfway through the film she even suffers a tragedy to make it personal, or as personal as a film like Zero Dark Thirty can manage.

While the focus on Maya downplays the contributions of countless others, her value to the task can't be overstated; as she puts it so memorably, she's "the motherfucker who found this place". Boal and Bigelow would argue – and have – that they were just lucky, discovering in the course of their research that the centre of their story was a steely, complex, resourceful woman (who is also allegedly the basis for Claire Danes' character in Homeland). It's fortunate for the audience as well: in large part due to Chastain's terrific performance, Maya is as compelling as the film that surrounds her.

Zero Dark Thirty is out in cinemas today

Hardy
Jan 25, 2013 3:32pm

Yet again, we have a long and talky film being bigged-up as something it isn't: a towering achievement.
Don't get me wrong, it's a fine movie - though obviously you know how it ends, so this in a Family-Guy-kind-of-way about 'enjoying the ride' - but it's very long on very intense exchanges and, like its TV-cousin Homeland, it's central character seems to given to screaming and shouting at everyone, bar the president, whenever somebody dares to question her. Try doing this in your place of work and see how long you last.
Perhaps Bigelow feels that Maya working on the ragged emotional edge ramps up the investment we place in her ultimate aim and the pay-off, but over the stretch of yet another over-long film it's not cathartic, it's just plain exhausting.
To sum-up: for all it flaws, Argo is the better film.

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Karl
Jan 25, 2013 5:03pm

If it's better than Hurt Locker, it might at least qualify as passable. Maybe.

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Hardy
Jan 25, 2013 7:13pm

In reply to Karl:

Nah, Hurt Locker was better. It had more of a point.

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Dan John
Jan 25, 2013 7:49pm

- Terrible review, I don't know where to start really, but you get the general gist yeah? :
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/25/zero-dark-thirty-normalises-torture-unjustifiable

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Apop
Jan 25, 2013 8:45pm

The movie is garbage and I'm not talking about the actual product itself. My girlfiend and I saw the trailer and she couldn't believe someone in Hollywood already made a film about an incident a year old. I assured her no, why would someone do such a thing. I was obviously wrong.
That someone would make a big Hollywood action epic out of this material so soon after the actual events is shameful in my opinion. Perhaps Ms. Bigelow and her co-writers should become imbeded with some soldiers on the front line in Afghanistan. They could start work on a story the minute someone gets capped, ya know, strike while the iron is hot, before the body's even gone cold.

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Hardy
Jan 26, 2013 12:47am

In reply to Apop:

I'd rather take each film on its own merits - after all, All the President's Men was made just barely two years after Nixon left office, and that's a classic of its period - it's fine in its own right, it's just not the stone cold classic that people seem to feel compelled to call it. Lincoln may be long, windy and overblown, but it's much more focused and thoughtful in its intent and subject matter - much better to study the man in the round by looking at these crucial weeks.

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Apop
Jan 26, 2013 2:38am

In reply to Hardy:

Absolutely Hardy, you make a good point. I guess it just makes me personally uncomfortable, this film in particular. It's been not much more than a year after Osama's demise (and I'm not a tree-huggin' lefty who was saddened by that demise, tho I am very much a lefty for the most part), this the man who held National attention for so very long...governmental as well as public. Living in this nation post 9/11 was a big messy convoluted experience, and before we've had much of a chance to process the elimination of the culprit we have a film packaged up in a neat little box with a catchy title, aesthetically (sp?) pleasing marketing game plan, an awards campaign it's up and ready to sell. Just stinks a bit for this kid.

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Apop
Jan 26, 2013 2:41am

In reply to Hardy:

Just to add an important point...that this film is out now means they were on it from a production standpoint (filmmaking of this level is a very looooong slooooow process) literally the day bin Laden got popped.

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Mat Colegate
Jan 26, 2013 9:02am

In reply to Apop:

As the review points out, Bigelow was already making a film about the US's failure to apprehend Bin Laden when he was killed. The filmmakers had to think on their feet and expand their story as it was playing out.

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Hardy
Jan 26, 2013 3:35pm

In reply to Mat Colegate:

Just imagine the high-pitched screams of anguish that came from the movie production office when Obama made that announcement...

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dreamdream
Jan 26, 2013 6:05pm

See how you feel when they show Usama's orphans!

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Karl Smith
Jan 27, 2013 8:28am

In reply to Dan John:

I said this on Twitter, but I'll say it again here, I'm very much an admirer of Slavoj Žižek, but that article is poor. I agree in principle with what he's saying, but the quality of the piece is well bellow par - so much so that it borderline invalidates the points he's trying to make. It's just a classic, trite, Comment is Free hatchet job.

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Jan 27, 2013 8:35am

It's Erin Brokovich for two hours then the OBL raid... the better movie would have been about those three wives of his... Supposedly by the time Jessica Chastain found him, bin laden was praying for death...

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Jan 27, 2013 8:38am

oh yeah the actual phrase is O (oh) -Dark Thirty.. no one in the military says zero... so much for accuracy...

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Dan John
Jan 27, 2013 12:56pm

don't be silly.

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Nickname
Jan 27, 2013 1:24pm

My impression is that mrs Bigelow is nothing else that equivalent of Leni Rifenstahl - she's just making propaganda movies. Oscar for "Hurt Locker" could make you having impression that there's certain pressure behind the curtain. So I don't want to even watch this movie

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Karl Smith
Jan 27, 2013 2:41pm

In reply to :

'Oh, Dark Thirty!' Would have been an excellent name.

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Fabi
Jan 27, 2013 4:15pm

" with Boal granted extensive and unprecedented access to classified CIA intelligence about the mission" Of course she had access to all of this, the movie is just the explanation about the invasion of the middle east. Propaganda. And i am not talking about the quaality of the film in every aspect.

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Apr 25, 2013 8:04pm

In reply to Dan John:

Agreed. I rate this movie lower than any other "worst movie of all time" candidate. It's interesting to note which critics are buying Bigelow's "journalistic tone" nonsense. Also interesting to note is how she uses the exact opposite line when facing criticism from political commentators who are aware that her depictions of torture can only be categorized as false, propagandistic, or both. She rebuffs this with platitudes like "it was a story we couldn't ignore," but putting torture in this context--the direct cause of UBL's death--is worse than washing it away. Besides all that, the characters are one-dimensional, uninteresting, and unsympathetic. Bigelow seems to think that will make give the effect of making the film seem "raw" and "tense," but it's just boring. The film, especially the second act, feels extremely long, repeats the same plot device at least three times, and somehow manages not to latch onto any human dimension or perspective of the UBL hunt and the War on Terror. The dialogue ranges from the sociopathic to the laughably contrived with no irony or self-awareness. On top of all that, Jessica Chastain is shrill and overrated.

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