You can’t ignore context when evaluating a film. But what happens when context itself is the substance of the film rather than the film itself?
Zero Dark Thirty is the story of how one C.I.A. officer’s tireless search for Osama bin Laden’s courier led to the discovery and death of the terrorist. Full stop. That’s the film. It starts with 9/11 emergency calls and ends with the identification of the body after the midnight raid by S.E.A.L. Team 6.
Kathryn Bigelow is the perfect director to bring this story to life. She trades in protagonists who don’t show much emotion but do command the screen. She won Best Picture and Best Director for her brilliant Iraq War film The Hurt Locker. Zero Dark Thirty is a logical extension of that.
The film looks great. The handheld camera work plays into the “this is what really happened, honest” card that opens the film. It’s like the curtain is being pulled back on something we were never meant to know. There’s this voyeuristic quality about it that suits Bigelow’s approach.
The film looks and feels right, but it doesn’t really stand on its own as a film. The main C.I.A. agent, Maya (played by Jessica Chastain), is an emotionless predator hunting down her prey no matter what the stakes are. We’re meant to cheer her on and support her every move, but she’s a total non-entity beyond tracking Osama bin Laden’s courier. Any emotional attachment comes not from her performance, her character, or her story but from the collective anger of the American public against Osama bin Laden.
The opening scene is a black screen while audio of the final 911 calls from the Twin Towers plays. It’s a terrible, manipulative tactic and also a lazy one. Bigelow forces the audience to care about whatever US agent is put on the job to capture the terrorist responsible for the attacks. She could have said a gorilla who communicates in sign language was in charge of the mission to find Osama bin Laden and people would rave about how amazing that gorilla C.I.A. agent was in the story. It could have been a supercomputer, a toy dog that does flips, or an infant in a playpen and the outcome would be the same. The audience would cheer for the death of Osama bin Laden and admire the agent who finally found him.
But if that agent, now a character in the film, is not a character beyond the collected angst and rage of Americans, are we really rooting for her in her story? If she’s a cipher for our frustration at an almost decade long manhunt, are we really applauding her for her actions? Or are we just happy to finally see the image of Osama bin Laden incapable of hurting us again? And if every other character in the film has a far more engaging presence, terrorists included, would we be behind the agent’s ruthless tactics if the target wasn’t Osama bin Laden?
Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty is a well-made film on a technical level and not much else. The central character is so underwritten and unpronounced that she becomes a symbol for the War on Terror, not an engaging film character. Any investment in her plight and this story comes from having any interest in finding out how Osama bin Laden was captured. The context you could get from the news is the main attraction, not the two and a half hour film you’re watching, and that’s a problem.
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