Monday, January 21, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

There's a moment towards the end of the second act of Zero Dark Thirty when the CIA director (played by an actor in a mostly unbilled cameo that I won't spoil) polls his operatives, including dogged pursuer Maya (Jessica Chastain), about the odds that the compound in Abbotabad, Pakistan actually houses Osama bin Laden.  Sixty percent they mostly agree on, although one says 80 and Maya is absolutely, 100% certain that UBL, as they call him, resides there.  60 is a big number but it's not that big in context, given what Maya's ultimate goal is, which is to kill bin Laden.  Maya would prefer to simply drop a bomb on the compound but that number, 60, means that the higher-ups are skittish about the operation, and they choose to send a strike force in instead, a decision which puts American lives at risk but which allows for a bit more nuance in terms of who lives and who dies inside the walls of the compound.  If a Saudi drug dealer lives in the compound with his family, and a bomb is dropped on top of it, very uncomfortable questions will be asked of the US government by the Pakistanis.

Zero Dark Thirty is a film that, more than anything else, pulses with the energy of a supremely confident filmmaker who knows exactly how to ratchet up and release tension, even when not much more is happening on screen but two people talking to each other about what some tiny shred of intelligence actually means.  Kathryn Bigelow has always been a talented visual stylist, but she's found a collaborator in screenwriter Mark Boal who has allowed her, first in the masterful Oscar winner The Hurt Locker and now in this film, to deploy her talents on a film that has real substance.  The story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden is one of countless numbers of people, working across all manner of intelligence and bureaucratic agencies, painstakingly putting together the pieces of where bin Laden was hiding.  Boal takes that story and filters it through Maya, a character who, thanks to Jessica Chastain's typically excellent work, we come to empathize with and genuinely care about, even though we know next to nothing about who she is.  A rotating cast fills out the edges of her story; Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle and a number of other actors flit in and out of the story but Maya always remains, with her eyes fixed on the one target that she desperately wants to find.

That 60 percent number is where the film resides.  If the Maya (and the other CIA agents) had been wrong, no one ever makes Zero Dark Thirty, because it's just another failed, and subsequently covered-up, operation.  Sixty percent is, realistically, the best anyone can do under the circumstances, because that is how intelligence works, with percentages and probabilities, not certainties.  Maya believes in her own certainty, but the people in charge of making the decision can't afford to be anything less than completely honest about the mission.  In the end, the film is, at its heart, a revenge flick, and revenge flicks don't exist without closing the book on the target of their vengeance.  The toll the hunt takes on Maya is obvious in the closing scene but the truth is that the killing of Osama bin Laden from the audience's perspective is a cathartic moment.  Just like there is no such thing as an anti-war movie, there is no such thing as an anti-revenge movie.  This film earns its vengeance, even if it might not be completely satisfied with it.

It is, of course, not possible to talk about this film without at least mentioning its politics - I believe that it is a film whose politics are, by and large, those that a person brings to bear on it.  If you believe that America's torture program was (and is) absolutely crucial in the fight against international terrorism, there is plenty here that would suggests that you are right.  If you believe (as I do) that America's torture program was a practical failure and a morally repugnant turn for this country, there is evidence for that too.  However you feel about legally sanctioned torture, the film does not allow anyone off the hook for what it actually looks like on the ground, the brutality and degradation of it, and I appreciated that fact, even if I maintain some degree of trepidation about just how much of the film's point of view is with the CIA.

This is a film about the slow but steady accumulation of intelligence, and also about how quests for revenge change the perspective of those who engage in them.  Just as surely as Osama bin Laden ultimately got precisely what he deserved, it is reasonable to inquire what, exactly, the continuing quest for justice, one that did not truly end with his death, has cost America.  Zero Dark Thirty, by focusing on Maya, asks that question obliquely, but it is always there, traveling along with the film, even as it thrills on the surface.  A

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