|Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty (Photo: Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures)|
Kathryn Bigelow, the director of the “get Bin Laden” thriller Zero Dark Thirty, is – like Walter Hill and John Woo in their prime, and John Sturges and Don Siegel before them – a master action film-maker. Period. It’s a highly specialized category, and one that far fewer directors fit into than you might expect, given the degree to which action films dominate the marketplace. Plenty of hacks, and any number of good directors trying to score a hit that might allow them to work on the films they care about, know how to stage gunfights and chases and explosions, or can at least cede control of a production to the stunt coordinators and pyrotechnics experts for a few days. Bigelow is one of those rare people who can stage figures in a composition and set them in motion in such a way that the release of kinetic energy is both exciting and aesthetically satisfying. It’s because of directors like Bigelow that some critics are able to get away with claiming that physical action caught on film is the true essence of “pure cinema.”
Bigelow can generate that kind of excitement even when her actors are confined to tight quarters, as in the tense, intelligent K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), about a nuclear accident aboard a Soviet military submarine. Although K-19 was a box office disaster, it may have marked a significant turning point in Bigelow’s career. Throughout the ‘90s, she turned out a string of ever gaudier failures (Blue Steel, Point Break, Strange Days) that showed a lot of confidence in her ambitious, high-decibel vision and not a lot of interest in narrative believability. Making a movie that was set among men who lived by a military code, with a story that had at least one foot in the real world, did wonders for her ability to focus. Her next film, The Hurt Locker, starring Jeremy Renner as a bomb-disposal expert in Iraq, was even better, a wartime character study that combined Hemingway’s romantic attitude about grace under pressure with the kind of gonzo vision of the absurdity of war that came out of the most original fiction and journalism about the Vietnam war.
|Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal on the set of Zero Dark Thirty|
Then, when word got out that the movie portrays torture as an essential weapon in the War on Terror, the debate shifted, and liberals who hadn’t seen the movie either began writing impassioned editorials denouncing it. You could call that proof that the movie would be embraced and attacked by people of every conceivable political stripe no matter what it said, and you’d be right. That’s not Bigelow’s fault. But now that the actual movie is finally in wide release, people will probably continue to either see it as confirmation of what they want to believe or, if they prefer to feel besieged by Hollywood propagandists, as a forty-million-dollar sneak attack on their most cherished beliefs, and that is Bigelow’s fault. Despite its gritty, pseudo-documentary surface, with dates and chapter headings flashing on the screen, Zero Dark Thirty is deeply movie-ish in its thinking, and the material is shaped not to reveal the shape of history, or to argue political points either, but simply to play on the viewer’s feelings. Because of that, and because of what it’s about, it has the texture and weight of a Rorschach blot, and it operates in the exact same way.
|Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke|
Throughout the film, Maya comes across as someone who’s in over her head. (And when, after a tragedy, she hunkers on the floor of her office with a bottle of booze, she looks less like a grown woman trying to cope with emotional devastation than a little girl who’s gotten into the schnapps while her parents are out.) But this probably isn’t a case of miscasting. In such art-house favorites as The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, Chastain’s speciality has been projecting a youthful maternal glow that a lot of people find spiritual, and here, she sanctifies torture. Maya isn’t a sadistic monster; she’s not one of those grinning cretins posing for pictures of their victims at Abu Ghraib.
Maya is meant to be the one intelligence agent so dedicated and single-minded that she never loses sight of the importance of capturing Bin Laden, even when those more short-sighted, such as her station chief in Islamabed (Kyle Chandler) thinks, and makes a pretty good argument, that she’s “chasing a ghost” who’s of less vital importance than the people who aren’t hunkered down for the rest of their lives but are planning terrorist acts right now. But in a cast full of terrific actors, and also Mark Duplass, playing intelligence agents and military personnel, she’s the one who never seems to quite fit in. This feels like a deliberate choice, intended to make her easier for the civilians in the audience to relate to. Maya has finer feelings that she has to suppress in order to go along with the dirty things that have to be done, in the name of homeland security. If you may have information she needs, and you have to be tortured for it, it’s important to know that the torture hurts her more than it hurts you.
|Chris Pratt, centre, and Joel Edgerton in Zero dark Thirty|
In Texas, where I saw the movie, there were knowing snickers in the audience when Dillane tells the CIA people, who are champing at the bit to dispatch soldiers to the house, that President Obama is a thoughtful, level-headed man who needs more evidence. Probably, in another theater in another city, there’ll be snickers when Dillane says that the CIA made a better case for Saddam’s cache of WMDs. Bigelow may not have knowingly rigged the movie to potentially be all things to all people, but she and Boal had to choose which details and incidents to include, and they made their decisions based on the kind of movie they wanted to make – one that extols the virtues of “professionalism” and stubborn dedication to a dream.
When one of the soldiers (Chris Pratt) asks his team leader (Joel Edgerton) why he believes Bib Laden is inside that house, the team leader points at Maya and says, “Her confidence.” “That’s the kind of concrete data point I’m looking for,” says Pratt, in the time-tested manner of manly action-movie men who express their deepest feelings while pretending to be joking. In the end, the movie seems to suggest that everyone should have just listened to Maya from the start, because of the depths of her conviction. There’s no reason that Bigelow couldn’t have made the same movie about how everyone should have listened to the people who believed that Saddam Hussein planned 9/11 and was planning a big follow-up with his vast stores of WMDs, except that such a movie would be laughed off the screen.
|Jennifer Ehle in Zero Dark Thirty|
It says something about how much action-movie thinking has seeped into our politics that the meat of the anti-torture argument in recent years has come down to whether it’s effective or not. There might be an argument over whether there are things that civilized people shouldn’t stoop to, and shouldn’t tolerate having their governments stoop to on their behalf, whether or not they work, but Bigelow isn’t the person to consider that argument. Much of the noise surrounding Zero Dark Thirty has concerned whether Bigelow and Boal exaggerate the actual importance of torture to the success of the effort to find Bin Laden. The people who took us into Iraq embraced any “evidence” that Saddam had WMDs, and vetoed any evidence that he didn’t, because they already knew what they wanted to believe. Whatever Bigelow and Boal want to believe, I suspect that they chose to favor the people who told them that torture was essential to this story because it fitted the movie they wanted to make: torture may or may not be effective, it may or may not be the only way intelligence can be gathered, but it’s definitely exciting and “cinematic,” and in a context like Zero Dark Thirty, it gives you the feeling that you’re getting the ugly grown-up truth, which you can then either denounce or embrace. On its own terms, Zero Dark Thirty is an impressive piece of filmmaking, but the very inadequacy of those terms, in relation to its subject and ambition, reveals a lot about the limits of being a master action filmmaker.
The A. V. Club.