Seymour Movies: Some Quick-and Dirty Thoughts on “Zero Dark Thirty”

Kathryn Bigelow directing Zero Dark Thirty


IMMEDIATE REACTION: I know what you’re thinking. At this late date, who am I to put twigs on a fire that’s dying out anyway? After all, nobody cares a fig what I think about torture. I’m not sure I care either. It’s like what Randy Newman said about the Spanish Inquisition that “put people in a terrible position/I don’t even like to think about it/Well…sometimes I like to think about it….”

1.) I’m just going to throw this out: The Hurt Locker is a better movie, though there are stretches of righteous filmmaking in this one; not surprisingly, they all come as the movie approaches the precipice of shattering violence. (The build-ups to both bombings, especially the Christmas morning attack; the whole climax, etc.) It’s not entirely Kathryn Bigelow’s fault any more than it’s Jessica Chastain’s fault that she’s stuck playing not a character so much as a state-of-mind. (More on this in a minute.) To me, doing this story so soon is like someone making JFK in 1966 — and something tells me if Oliver Stone were able to do so back then, he would have. Even before the movie was released, I was wondering what the rush was to get this story on-screen, irrespective of the controversy over torture. (More on THAT in a minute, too.) If I chose to practice armchair psychology (& since it’s just us talking, why not), I’d guess that K.B. was drawn to the idea of a brilliant, ballsy young heroine whom no one — no MEN, specifically — takes as seriously as she demands to be taken. (I’d love to see K.B. someday do HER side of James Cameron’s The Abyss, though it wouldn’t necessarily have to be the same story.) I think Zero Dark Thirty is taking a beating mostly because its narrative is still current enough to be mistaken for journalism where if it were made and/or released ten or twenty years from now, the movie would be viewed correctly as historic events filtered through imagination. It may take twenty years for that to happen anyway.

2.) By now, I’ve read & heard just about every attack on Zero for its depiction of torture; that it glorifies or misrepresents torture as being key to getting a lock on Bin Laden’s whereabouts or is shilling some kind of thinking-person’s version of “USA! USA! USA!” triumphalism.  (For balance’s sake, I shall include both Greg Mitchell’s measured dissent of the movie in his Nation blog and Glenn Kenny’s elegant and thorough skewering of the movie’s attackers.) As I’ve already said, I think the movie kind of asked for the pummeling it’s getting by throwing all this stuff out there unmediated by time’s passage & the intervening revisions & disclosures that could broaden understanding of the whole War-on-Terror era. But if the leftist pundits out there truly believe that the movie’s audiences are going to watch these waterboarding-and-boxing-in scenes & feel in any way ennobled or roused by the CIA’s savvy, then it sounds to me as though they’re not only underestimating people’s intelligence (to say nothing of their capacity to be grossed-out), they’re sort of buying into the blinkered bullshit about the Power of Movies without any real knowledge, intuitive or otherwise, of what that Power really is. (Getting back to JFK, do you really think that movie changed anybody’s mind about whether or not Oswald acted alone? If anything, that movie bullied people into thinking, “Who cares anymore who killed Kennedy?” — just as, it could be argued, Spike Lee’s Malcolm X swallowed or exhausted whatever public acrimony or controversy remained about its subject, too.)

3.) And as for the triumphalism, I REALLY don’t get where that criticism comes from. You most emphatically do not walk away from Zero Dark Thirty feeling cleansed, cathartic or especially patriotic. If anything, it comes across as an anti-revenge revenge movie, if that makes any sense. From the very beginning when you hear the wailing of the soon-to-be-dead woman in the soon-to-collapse Twin Towers to the very end when you see Chastain’s Maya, isolated on a transport plane she has all to herself, weeping & desolate & not quite sure anymore who she is or where she goes from here, Zero Dark Thirty resounds as nothing so much as a melancholy dirge on America in the ten years between the raids of both 9/11 and 5/1; of what we became or compelled ourselves to become in the wake of a heretofore unimaginable trauma. (This review, from what seem like eons ago, puts it better than I just did. )Maya is the embodiment of that mind-set, a blank space upon which we’re supposed to project our own seething desire for closure or payback. She doesn’t have any past except the one we’re supposed to conjecture. (Did she have some connection with the woman on the phone in that 9/11 prelude? I haven’t read anything that suggests that, though I’m sure it’s out there somewhere.) That Chastain makes this enigma substantial enough to carry this movie is, I suppose, reason enough to give her an Oscar nomination. Still, a blank space is no substitute for a real person & not even that moist coda she delivers is enough to make me believe in her. She likely had less to work with in The Tree of Life & she somehow evoked everything about that mother’s past, present & future. I guess if Zero does anything for her, it’ll make her a convincing starship captain in some Star Trek sequel, assuming she ever wants to go where no method actress has gone before.

4.) So little does Zero troll for patriotic cheers that I think it hurts its own chances for collecting any Oscar whatsoever. Argo. Now THERE’S a movie that makes you stand up and go “USA! USA! USA!” at the end. It’s the principal reason the Academy now regrets not giving Ben Affleck a director’s nod & why it now looks as though his movie’s poised to eat everybody else’s lunch, even Abe’s. Just as Rocky trounced All the President’s Men & Network in 1976 & Crash beat out Brokeback Mountain in 2006, the movie that makes Hollywood feel better about itself will likely clobber the movies that feel too much like Homework. (Remember: I’m forcing myself not to care this year who wins what…)