Spoilers (Bin Laden dies in the end)
The other week I reviewed Lincoln, where I mentioned off the bat that it was a film I was fairly sure I was going to love and that I, indeed, ended up loving immensely.
Zero Dark Thirty is a film I also expected to love, given the subject matter, rave reviews and Oscar nominations, but the opposite has occurred. I not only disliked this film, but came close to hating it, and its apparent success has bewildered and puzzled me ever since the credits (finally) rolled on this 154 minute waste of my time.
To put it another way: A really good method to judge a movie is to see it with friends, and take note of how often they whisper things to each other in the theatre. Roughly 75 minutes into this film, and for another half hour before the raid-related stuff came on, my group and I just started mocking it, Mystery Science Theatre style. It was the only way to keep going. I happened to be the driver for that group, and if that hadn’t been the case, I think I might have walked out.
I’ll start out the train of complaints with the biggest one, which is that Zero Dark Thirty is a boring movie. Fully two-thirds of the running length is just about unnecessary. The “action” unfolds in as boring and pointless a fashion as to be like a poorly made episode of Law and Order. Our lead Maya has to find the guy who will lead them to the guy who will lead them to the guy who will lead them to Bin Laden, but for the dead end they run smack dab into half way through that process. Not to worry, because a random character will turn up for 30 seconds to rectify that problem. This whole part of the movie, the first hour and a half of a two and a half hour film, just made me yawn and yawn. There was nothing interesting about the score of Arab terrorist suspects Maya went through, or the obsession with Bin Laden, or the cavalcade of poorly defined supporting CIA agents whose names I can’t even remember. It was just a 90 minute procedural leading to the raid, a procedural that lacked any kind of excitement, interest or notability. Bland sets, bland dialogue, bland characters all taking part in a bland story that would be more at home in a Discovery Channel documentary about the hunt for Bin Laden than a cinema worthy experience.
This is a conflict between “historical” accuracy and entertainment, though this discussion might be somewhat redundant because the production team could not possibly have that much verifiable detail to go on. I put “historical” in quote marks because it’s hardly history only two years on, but this is a movie that seems like it is at pains to be real and accurate and “faithful” to what actually happened, but it just kills the entertainment aspect stone dead about it.
Here’s the dirty little secret: Ignore the minority who bleat about artistic license as some kind of evil, because it isn’t, not inherently. Too much of it can wreck a film, but too little does the same thing. Zero Dark Thirty is a movie crying out for some changes to reality, because this is not a documentary. I am not going to the cinema so I can learn about how the CIA really likes to record grainy footage of endless prisoner interrogations. It’s a movie. It is nominally a work of partial fiction and is supposed to be entertaining.
I was not entertained by 90 minutes of mostly desk work and chasing ghosts. Nothing about it drew me in, made me enthralled, because I simply stopped caring after the first 20 minutes moved into continued monotony.
I’m not asking for gun fights to appear from nowhere, or for fight scenes. I’m asking for urgency, for pace, for conflict within the CIA of a more interesting bent (what was there, one scene that could be described as that?), for that failed raid to find Bin Laden to be depicted, for Tora Bora, for more direct looks at torture and its moral and psychological effect on the torturer, for anything other than the snore-fest that we were subjected to as Maya spends her time following a trail of boredom and then blunders on to what she was looking for apropos of nothing.
Things can be entertaining even if they lose some reality. That’s the trick of historical cinema. It’s why Michael Collins is a good movie, even if it has scores of stuff left out or made up. It’s why Argo depicts the embassy escapee’s being rejected by embassies other than Canada. It’s why Lincoln made a big deal out of Confederate negotiations that were doomed from their beginning in reality.
Some reviewers have compared Zero Dark Thirty to Argo is a positive light, with Richard Corliss of Time claiming that it “blows” Ben Affleck’s film “out of the water”. This is nonsense. Argo is an effective thriller, where the direction, the camerawork, the script and the performances are competent and elite enough to create a sense of highest tension, of danger, of edge-of-your-seat feelings and it does it all with a lower running time. Compare the simplicity of the Argo hideaways just moving through the Tehran airport with any of the first 90 minutes of Zero Dark Thirty and you should see the stark difference in creating excitement and skill in storytelling. Every scene in Argo has a point, a purpose to forwarding the plot or introducing some new element. Even the relationships between the more poorly defined characters in Argo are streaks ahead of their competitors in Bigelow’s film. It’s an historical movie that has the guts to alter things to make the story better, and it works spectacularly. Zero Dark Thirty cannot say the same. Nearly everything Affleck did right, Bigelow does wrong.
And Zero Dark Thirty showing an inordinate amount of scenes of the main character at a desk is why it is a story-related failure, in my eyes. This isn’t entertaining and that’s what film has to be. If you want to make a documentary, make a documentary, but that isn’t what Zero Dark Thirty was marketed as. The story of the Bin Laden raid can be more interesting than this. Focus on the Seal Team. Focus on John Clarke’s character, who received better characterisation than Maya ever did. Focus on Bin Laden himself if you want (and someone will, eventually). But do something other than what we got, which was boring as hell. In keeping the story as realistic as possible, Bigelow has destroyed its entertainment value.
For example, the climax of that first half of the movie is for the search to go cold, only for Maya to stumble upon new intel that was in the CIA’s possession all along, she just couldn’t find it. Thus, making most of the first hour and a half a waste of time for the viewer. Why couldn’t the movie move from the initial set-up/torture scenes to this point and spare us all the nonsense that preceded it? The decision to include that dead end made it all seem like a waste of time and film. I suppose it might be faithful to what actually happened (Is it?) but it is atrocious story-telling in my view.
Perhaps it is simply too soon for a movie of this subject matter to be told effectively. So much is still classified and not completely known, and the “first-hand” accounts that have come out are contradictory and unhelpful. The time for reflection on the event has been minimal, and the whole affair stinks as an effort to simply be first to tell this story. I don’t mean rushed, as it is clear from the production information I found, but certainly little patience was taken in combining the previous movie Bigelow was making with what it became after the death of the subject.
Because this really does seem like two different movies. The first 110 minutes or so is the most inane of experiences and the rest, the only good part really, is a recreation of the raid itself, the nature of which is completely different to the rest of the movie. Bigelow was making a work about the tragically useless effort to find Bin Laden and then had to radically change her outlook when the man himself was shot dead. The result is this mismatched film, where the nominal main character drops off the face of the earth for the finale when the actual SEAL team that did the job takes focus. It’s jarring, it’s unnecessary and it isn’t the right way to tell this kind of tale.
As mentioned, its way too long, a failure of editing on a par with Quinton Tarantino. It drags and drags and drags, not just with the whole sections that are unnecessary, but with the lengthening of many scenes to a point that is not required. Everything seems to be just a few minutes longer than it has to be, such as the early torture scenes, the car bombing scene at Camp Chapman, convincing the US government to approve the raid and so on. Bigelow needed to wield the knife more, because the script and the performances on display aren’t enough to justify such a lengthy running time. The best part of the film, the raid, is the one with the least dialogue, which says something. Watching Maya and her friend stumble around a smoky hotel or watch so much grainy interrogation footage or go through loads and loads of bureaucratic hold-ups does not a good movie make.
Then there are just pointless scenes that seem to have been flung in for the weakest of reasons. I mentioned before the lack of excitement or tension for the first hour and a half and two examples of failure in that regard will suffice. While tracking down the latest in a long line of targets, the CIA team find themselves driving around Pakistan when they are blocked off, front and back, in an alley by armed men. This is presented as a tense, guns-could-be-fired-at-any-moment sort of scene as the CIA guys talk the guys down and stare them out before continuing on their way.
This is a scene that had no point or purpose. The gunmen are never seen again, or referenced. The audience is already aware that Pakistan is a dangerous place for westerners to be and that there are terrorists around, so that did not need to be drilled into the audiences head in this manner. This scene appears to have been put in as a cookie-cutter method of raising tension, which falls utterly flat for me, because it wasn’t necessary and because I didn’t care about the nameless CIA agents it put in peril – a peril they drove away from without harm.
The second scene I’ll mention is a brief bit of gunplay when Mia is attacked by some militants while leaving the CIA compound in Pakistan. This scene is random violence of little plot purpose beyond showing that CIA agents are targets – which earlier hotel and car bombing scenes did better and enough – and again seems to exist because an action beat to break up the monotony was needed. Who carries out this attack? Are they tracked down? How badly does this effect Maya? Why should I care about the nothing character security guard who gets attacked also?
I said before that some more action should have been in this movie, but action has to have a relevant point to make or a purpose in terms of plot, otherwise it’s just mindless violence and loud noises to grab the audiences flagging attention. It has to have some intelligence behind it, and this scene had none of that.
There are just so many bad scenes here. One that especially sticks out is the Camp Chapman attack, a moment of peril so obviously telegraphed and featuring some blundering stupidity from the CIA agent that the sympathy I had was limited. It was too long, too obvious in its outcome, too maudlin, too dumb. She really just let the guy drive into a US Army base without any checks? Really? As far as I’m aware, the real Chapman bomber was known to the base, hence his easy entry, so chalk this up as historical license that backfires. You can change things for movies, but you’re supposed to do it for the better. They could have met him at the gate for example or maybe outside the Army Base full stop, thus shortening the scene by an amount it really had to be, and eliminating this ridiculous plot-hole.
Jessica Chastain is our lead. I can’t say I’m familiar with her work, but I know she was well regarded for The Help. I suppose I should mark this up as the fault of the director then, because her Maya is as hollow a character as they come, someone I just did not care about in the slightest. She barely has any emotional range to display, beyond stoicness and some belated tears at the conclusion. She’s so cold and distant, even in scenes where the opportunity to do more exists (like just before the hotel bombing scene). Aside from the “righteous anger” archetype she steps into later on as she rants about how important it is to find Bin Laden to her boss (a scene where, since it was this movie, I found myself siding with her more rational boss) or starts cursing at superiors. Maya is extraordinarily unlikable as a character, which would be fine, if there was still any shred of care I had for the eventual outcome, or any real sense of danger to be had in the several threats to her life. Chastain, bizarrely nominated for an Oscar, gives us a mundane performance, not helped by the sudden deference shown to the SEAL team in the last 40 minutes when she becomes a mere spectator to the actual action going on. She has so little to do that is of any interest, no interesting personal relationships, no interesting conflict, and no logical reason for the Bin Laden obsession beyond some cliché blood vengeance angle after the Camp Chapman attack. It’s no good.
And the rest? I can only lump them all in together because I just didn’t care at all. Nameless faces all, gutted for screentime and lacking any kind of meaningful connection to the main character or to the plot at large. Jason Clarke is ok-ish as the CIA torturer who gets out of the game, but his character is essentially dumped half way through. Jennifer Ehle is the CIA doofus at Camp Chapman, and the attempts to draw a key friendship between her and Maya were failures for me. Kyle Chandler is the station chief who (correctly) points out that killing Bin Laden is no longer a priority for the US because he’s unimportant, a truthful statement that means the Gods of movies will soon remove him from his position, Harold Perrineua (a very good actor) has a nothing role as a CIA operative, Mark Strong gets to be angry and little else as a CIA chief, James Gandolfini has all of five minutes to be the NSA director and hey, look, there’s John Barrowman for 30 seconds. For some reason. I’m a big believer that the importance of the role should correspond to the talent of the actor, and Zero Dark Thirty messes up that dynamic bigtime.
The only ones I’ll call special attention to otherwise are Joel Edgarton and Chris Pratt as the SEAL team leaders. They at least are believable as soldiers, eager for the mission but still nervous about the operation. Pratt is certainly channelling a bit of Andy from Parks and Recreation, but that actually fitted the part and I think he’s capable of bigger roles (Guardians of the Galaxy anyone?)
Visually, it’s nothing to write home about. There are some scenes that stand out, like anything to do with the helicopters or the aerial panning shots of US Bases and terrain, but other than that Bigelow settles for close-up shots of a straight-forward nature. This is a drab affair, but given that most of it is set in Pakistan and areas like this, I can forgive such a choice. The night-vision stuff of the final parts are executed very well and it is clear that much care has been taken in the production of the raid set. They’re all reasons why that part of the movie is actually of interest, the work put in is clear to see and I can appreciate that.
The other thing I’d note is that Bigelow apes plenty of scenes and stylistic choices from other sources. Maya driving through the crowd of protestors is straight out of Argo, the depiction of 9/11 is from Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, the plane ramp dropping to reveal Maya is from every war movie featuring that sort of aircraft ever. I don’t mean to nitpick of course, I’m just saying that there are plenty of moments where the direction mirrors other (better) productions and that damages any potential uniqueness of the story. When the film is lagging, the last thing you want to do is remind the audience of better movies (Oh, how I wished I was rewatching Argo).
The script is forgettable, save for the brief moments when it becomes unintentionally hilarious. At one point Maya seems to indicate that a terrorist would never lie to his mother, at others she chews out superiors and gets away with it. The best has to be in her first meeting with James Gandolfini’s character, where they discuss the compound and who might be hiding there. During a perfectly civil discussion, she suddenly comes out with “I’m the motherfucker who found Bin Laden”, spoken directly to someone far up the chain of command, who hadn’t made the slightest insult towards her up to that point. It’s the kind of moment, like “I’m the Juggernaut bitch”, that should be an internet meme. It was so jarring, so out of place, so unnecessary. More eye-raisingly, Maya is the “motherfucker” who found OBL apparently, with no help from the CIA team, the guys driving around Islamabad or the random intern who actually found the key piece of intel and then vanished from the movie. Why should I empathise, relate with or like this character?
The score is forgettable, save for the rather haunting “Flight to Compound” which set the scene nicely for the raid. The only other thing I note is the misuse of Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” in a scene a year before it was released.
As is my recent pattern, I’ll talk themes. I suppose persistence, the mindless sort occasionally, is the main theme, as Maya refuses, time and again, to give up on the Bin Laden chase. Her actions in doing so should be to the detriment of her career, maybe even her freedom in a more perfect world, but her character is able to move through such obstacles with ease. What story there is, is driven by her and her actions, her stubbornness, her innate feeling that she has the lead that will bring the US its most hated villain of recent times. Doesn’t matter how the intel is got, whether it is torture or deus ex machina interns with plot forwarding binders, Maya persists in finding it.
Then there is interrogation, torture and the answering of “How far will you go?” So much has been written about Bigelow’s depiction of torture, that I suppose I have little to add. The torture scenes are somewhat horrific, but not so brutal and graphic as to be completely stomach churning. The usefulness of torture is somewhat up for debate when it comes to the depiction here. The team get key intel, but only by convincing a sleep-deprived detainee that he has already cracked. You could say the point is that torture didn’t work, but it’s not like the detainee in question would have been in that state if they hadn’t been torturing him for several days up to that point. From there, Maya seems to gather further intelligence from other tortured subjects, but it is all implied, not directly shown. In the end, when it comes to the usefulness of torture, Zero Dark Thirty takes a neutral stance, neither affirming nor denying. The more cynical side of me would say that this was a deliberate move to increase publicity without crossing the line, but who knows?
When it comes to the morality of torture and the effect that it has on those doing the torturing, Zero Dark Thirty is similarly on the fence. Jason Clarke’s character gets out of the field game when he grows tired of such activities but never criticises them. When the characters see a video of then Presidential candidate Barack Obama saying America is “not a torture nation”, they looked concerned, but it is a personal concern, not a moral one. No one wants to be the “last one holding a dog collar” as one character puts it. From a story telling perspective, I suppose this kind of morally ambivalent attitude is nothing to criticise, but you could also say that Bigelow misses a chance to make a deeper statement on the issue, either for or against, or depicting those for and against. There is no debate about torture in this film, which might come as a surprise given the amount of column inches this movies depiction of the practise has inspired.
The last thing I’ll mention is the last line: “Where do you want to go?” Asked to an emotional Maya at the films conclusion, she seems to take on the role of the American populace at large, unsure of what to do now that their overriding obsession of a decade is dead and gone. Perhaps Bigelow is putting this question to the audience, wondering if they want to continue the US habit of intervention, renditions and torture now that the stated goal is done and dusted? What next? A little ham-fisted for my tastes, but it’s a rare moment of depth and metaphor in a movie that has almost none of that.
So, why is this movie so popular? Why all the praise, the nominations? Am I that out of sync? I doubt it, the people I saw it with weren’t loving it either. And I went in expecting to like it remember, so such a mindset would surely have been more excusing of flaws.
Maybe it is because I am Irish that I “don’t get it”. The quest to hunt Bin Laden will be a personal one for many Americans, a raw wound that this movie seeks to portray. It will naturally illicit a more emotional response from an American audience. But surely then, my criticisms stand even starker, judging the movie as entertainment from as neutral a position as you might be able to find?
Maybe it is just because “Bin Laden dies in it”, and this fact means that the movie is somewhat bullet-proof for American reviewers, lest they be accused of a lack of patriotic elan. But Best Picture? Best Actress? No. Zero Dark Thirty does not deserve such consideration in my eyes. To claim that this movie is an a footing with Les Miserables, Lincoln and Argo is an insult to the excellent work of those films and their production teams, who now share the stage with a movie that is there purely because of the identity of its bad guy.
Perhaps I’m reaching a little, but I find no other reasonable reason for this movie to be getting the plaudits that it is getting. It simply isn’t good enough.
In conclusion, Zero Dark Thirty is a mess in my eyes, a poorly edited, sloppily directed, badly acted, and notably boring mess, which deserves none of the nominations or plaudits that are being inexplicably sent its way. Not recommended, this is a film to avoid if you haven’t had to suffer through it already.
(All images are copyright of Columbia Pictures, Universal Pictures, Icon Productions and GAGA).