Friday, February 15, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) - dir. Kathryn Bigelow
After two amicable yet spirited debates over this film, I have decided to finally throw my hat into the ring and write my opinion on this film. I write this fully acknowledging the controversy surrounding it, to which I will try and address some of the finer arguments, and I hope to show why this is my pick for best film of 2012. 
We open to a black screen, the words September 11th, 2001 sprawled in front of us. We need not need further explanation, for this date has been burned into the minds and hearts of much of the world today. We hear screams, cries for help, crying. 11 years on the vividness of that day lives on as but a distant memory, yet the emotion and heartache still rings true. And now the film begins, not with a bang but a cry, as we the audience are subjected to a front row viewing to the darker side of Bush era foreign policy, torture. The film is gritty, real, and unrelenting in its gratuitous display of waterboarding and psychological humiliation. With the ever present memory of 9/11 lingering in our psyche, the cries and screams that ring in our minds, is this the price we must pay to get justice? Or revenge?  
For the subsequent 2 hours we follow the journey of CIA officer Maya as she tracks down the man whom the world placed as the face and embodiment of the evil that perpetrated the acts of terror in New York, London, Madrid and countless other cities. And on this journey we too bear witness to the evolution of her character, from the trembling greenhorn hiding behind a mask to a truly fearsome individual. Jessica Chastain bears the anger and blood lust of a nation as she doggedly pursues Osama bin laden, and comes to symbolize the transformation that my country the United States took during its embroilment in the war on terror. From leading proponent of liberty and human rights (just bear with me on this point) to a perpetrator of the most heinous of abuses. Just who is the evil here? Is our blind quest for revenge worth the principles we sacrifice on the way?
Maya is consumed with this singular goal to catch Osama bin Laden. We never see his face, yet his presence is constant. Much like in reality, he becomes more than a man and more of an idea. bin Laden becomes Moby Dick to Maya’s Ahab, a prize to which one will sacrifice the body and soul in grasping, dragging her principles down to that of the very enemy she fights. In the most intimate moment at the conclusion of the film, Maya sits alone on a cargo plane back to DC. She weeps, having experienced countless setbacks, pressure and loss, and herself committed many amoral acts, with that ever burning question, was it all worth it?
The film climaxes in what I believe to be one of the most well directed sequences in film history. Never since No Country For Old Men has a film kept me rapt in such anticipation and tension. We are thrust directly to the front lines of the compound raid, from insertion to that fateful shot, and we feel as though we were there. Bigelow employs gritty cinema vérité to emphasize this realism, with a careful pacing and minute precision that we hinge on every action on screen. Though we know the outcome, we are held in an involuntary suspension of belief that has us hanging on to every fateful moment.
Also SPOILER ALERT: bin Laden dies. Got it? Great we can continue.
Now I would be remiss if I did not address the primary controversy that has dogged this film, being the gratuitous display of torture as shown at the beginning of the film. This has two dimensions, the first being the factual basis for this scene, the second being to what purpose is it shown.
Firstly, and I put on my foreign policy cap here, this film is not based upon fact, and I say this in criticism of the director Kathryn Bigelow whom I greatly admire. The director touted this film as ‘journalistic’, with reference to scenes showing the use of enhanced interrogation methods in leading directly to bin Laden. This has been refuted not only by members of Congress but by the intelligence community and defence department. History tells us torture played a role, but not a key role, which is correctly shown in the film as I explain later. However at the end of the day this is a film, not a documentary. For the purpose of narrative and ultimately entertainment, film makers will often play fast and loose with the facts, with many Best Picture nominees this year such as Argo and Lincoln being guilty of the same charge. So whilst it should not have been marketed in the way it has been, it should not be faulted for being a fictional film, which is what it is at the end of the day, despite being based in a historical setting. 
The second criticism I find myself in defence of the film, that being the accusation that ZDT is pro torture. I highly disagree with this notion! The torture scene in question, and the information resulting from it, is supposedly posited to be the direct link to the final capture and slaying of bin Laden. This is just not the case at all. The scene itself shows the interrogators seeking information from al-Qaeda middle-man ‘Ammar’ in order to prevent an impending terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia. Despite their violent efforts, the subject proves uncooperative and we are shown the aforementioned attack being carried out in brutal detail. The torture ultimately proves futile and counter-productive, which is carried in the film’s script which ends the scene with “Once again, he’s learned nothing.” Here we see torture as a failed tactic, to which Maya then suggests a different approach, tricking the subject. This yields results and the hunt continues. This objective fact leads to my number one frustration with the criticism levied towards the film, which I find ultimately unfair. Torture, though amoral, was a widely used tactic during the Bush administration, and the film is accurate in portraying that fact. To criticize the film being pro torture I call lazy and irrespective of the facts. In other words, calling ZDT pro torture is the equivalent to calling A Clockwork Orange pro violence, in that you're missing the point completely. 
In further defense of this film, and at the sake of taking a slightly political tone, I also make note of what I see as an immense double standard in entertainment with regards to torture. Through the years torture has been employed as a popular narrative device in fiction, from films to television. Notable films including Man On Fire, James Bond on several occasions, the Bourne Series and Syriana have featured its use. And several television shows including 24 and most pointedly Homeland have employed torture as a central plot device. These narratives all show torture in what I can only describe as a positive light, an essential tool for the hero to catch the baddie and save the day. If we applied this same attitude to torture into policy, the results would be all but reprehensible. ZDT is the first film in a long while to show torture for what it is, a gratuitous, gruesome and immoral act, with not a scratch of heroism attached. So either society needs to seriously re-evaluate what it denotes torture, or take it for what it is, which is exactly what ZDT delivers. Serious buyer's remorse.
Zero Dark Thirty is a phenomenal  hands down. Not only is it thematically deep, but it is a stylishly directed and produced film, to which I find it disappointing that director Kathryn Bigelow was not nominated at this year’s Academy Awards for her efforts. Furthermore I see ZDT as an important film in its retelling of perhaps the most tumultuous period in American history. A friend compared it Bruce Springsteen’s song Born in the USA, a narration of a traumatic American experience. I delve further into this comparison. ZDT on its surface is a gung-ho ‘MERICA film, profiling the journey from national tragedy to an eventual triumph over global terrorism. However, if you read into the lyrics, at what the film is actually showing, it is anything but. And that is why Zero Dark Thirty is my best film of 2012. 9.5/10


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