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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Director Report Card: Kathryn Bigelow (2012)

9. Zero Dark Thirty

Before her making history with her Oscar win, Kathryn Bigelow was best known for expertly executed genre fare. She was – and I mean this as the highest of complements – a peddler of pulp.  Her reputation had been built on dazzling cult experiences like “Near Dark” and “Point Break.” After “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow suddenly became a director of “important” films. Such as “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film about history so recent it was actually rewritten to reflect current events. Another collaboration with journalist Mark Boal, the film was initially about the unsuccessful attempts to capture Osama bin Laden. Following the events of May 2, 2011, the project was entirely revamped to be about the successful assassination of bin Laden. As you'd expect, “Zero Dark Thirty” was met with controversy and award season attention. Over four years after it came out, the events the film depicts still feel almost too recent.

In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, one person would emerge as the most wanted man in the world. Osama bin Laden, a leader of Al Queda and a prime organizer of the attacks, evaded capture for nearly a decade. “Zero Dark Thirty” mixes fact and fiction, as it tells the story of how bin Laden was finally located. The film follows Maya, a CIA analyst who has spent her entire career tracking Osama. As Maya draws closer to the terrorist mastermind, she looses friends. She has numerous close calls with other terrorist attacks. She faces resistance from her superiors, who questions whether this quest is business or personal for Maya. All the while, Maya remains determined to achieve her goal.

Stylistically, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a continuation of “The Hurt Locker.” Both movies are rooted in a gritty sensibility, determined to recreate the hot, sand-strewn real life locations. For her ninth feature, Bigelow pulls way back on the shaky, handheld photography. Despite having a glossier look. “Zero Dark Thirty” feels no less tense and urgent than “The Hurt Locker.” Both films make use of frantic motion, glaring close-ups, and sudden explosions of violence. The two films are irrevocably linked in my mind, telling similar stories of obsession in a similar manner. If Bigelow ever makes another film about the War on Terror, I'll be happy to retroactively declare this the middle section of a thematic trilogy.

Despite its ripped from the headlines plot, Kathryn Bigelow's roots as a genre specialist shine through in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The story is a procedural, a mystery where the solution just happens to be common knowledge. Maya follows leads, retrieving clues from witnesses. Facts are revisited, a dead man turning out to a brother. There are false starts, trails that go cold and lead nowhere. When others tell her a lead might be a wrong turn, she sticks to her guns. Maybe this was Bigelow and Boal's way of feeding a real life stories, one that gets especially convoluted at times, to audiences. Through a recognizable genre outline.

This isn't the only familiar genre lens that Bigelow applies to this true story. “Zero Dark Thirty” is also a revenge story. The film begins with an absolutely chilling selection of real audio from September 11th, played against a black background. This is seemingly done to remind us of what was lost on that day, to give the following film more meaning. For Maya, hunting down Osama is a personal mission. She's out to avenge everyone who died in the attacks. Later, her quest is made literally personal, when a friend of her's is killed by a suicide bomber. Sometimes, I was even reminded of an eighties cop movie, when the lead struggles against obstinate authorities. Is filtering a real life story, one full of thorny choices and questionable decisions, through such a standard plot construction responsible? It's in debatable taste, if nothing else.

The aspect of “Zero Dark Thirty” that generated the most controversy when it was new, and possibly hurt the film's Oscar chances, was its depiction of torture. Here in reality, how effective “enhanced interrogation techniques” were at uncovering useful information has been debated endlessly. Many believed that the moral compromises necessary for such actions did not justify the intel that was gathered. “Zero Dark Thirty” makes no strong stance on this issue. The torture is depicted explicitly. Waterboarding, people shoved in tiny boxes, blasted with death metal, chained up and humiliated: It's all shown in detail. Ultimately, techniques like this is not what leads Maya and her team to Osama. Those who perform the torture are not judged harshly. On one hand, the film should be commended for its commitment to realism. On the other hand, it comes as wishy-washy on a hot button issue.

If you can separate “Zero Dark Thirty” from its real world roots – which is, you know, impossible – you'll see the film as a highly effective genre exercise. The factor uniting many of Bigelow's films has been her treatment of violence. In “Zero Dark Thirty,” every explosion, every act of terrorism, hits the viewer in the gut. When bombs go off, they rip through the air, the sound design catching the viewer off-guard every time. A pleasant dinner in a hotel is interrupted by a massive blast, destroying the room and throwing people through the air. As harrowing as the explosions are, the more intimate sequences of violence remain far more shocking. A terrorist attack on an American hotel, a gunman killing every American present, is sickening. An attack on Maya in her driveway is nearly as tense.

Moments like this combine to make “Zero Dark Thirty” an exhausting watch. This is not an easy movie to digest. It's long, Bigelow's longest film at two hours and twenty-seven minutes. Most of the movie moves at a snail's pace, many scenes devoted to Maya and her colleagues attempting to track down leads. Once you combine this with the often shocking scenes of realistic violence, the viewer is kept in a state of ill ease. If this was on purpose, it was to replicate Maya's head space. She's exhausted too, worn out from a long mission that has cost many lives and stretched on for years. Yet I'm not sure what purpose inflicting this on the viewer has. You could have made the same point without turning the movie into such a slog.

“Zero Dark Thirty” makes many questionable decisions. Its cast isn't one of them. At the front of the film is Jessica Chastain as Maya. Chastain maintains a steely intensity throughout the entire film. Maya is a character unwavering in her goals. Chastain gifts her with a distinct attitude. She's frank with her bosses, casually using profanity in front of them. She digs into cases on her own, often putting herself directly into the middle of the danger. That's her commitment to the cause. Chastain's performance is the main reason to see “Zero Dark Thirty.” It's powerful, full of nuance and small details, a boiling sea underneath her red hair and pale skin.

The supporting cast also has some recognizable faces. Jason Clarke has probably the showy supporting part, as the CIA agent in charge of interrogations. There's something about Clarke that makes me uncomfortable, that I can't put my finger on. Considering the character he's playing, it makes the film's treatment of torture even harder to determine. A number of known character actors appear as the bureaucrats in Maya's way. Mark Strong sports a pretty good wig. Kyle Chandler is probably the best of these characters, getting the most screen time with Chastain. James Gandolfini is under heavy make-up but is immediately recognizable, thanks to his voice and particular attitude. A number of future stars show up as the marines at the end. See if you can spot Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, and Frank Grillo.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is building up to one moment: When Seal Team Six descends on Osama's compound and make the big fat kill. This sequence is as deliberately paced as everything else in the film. Yet the effect is different this time. As the marines work through the compound, the silence is interrupted by gunshots and doors being blasted through. The gritty intimacy of Bigelow's best films return in a big way. The audience is shoved into the tight hallways of the compound. The viewer never knows what kind of danger is around each corner. Even then, “Zero Dark Thirty” maintains it commitment to realism. The marines have to make hard sudden decisions, shooting at women and children. When bin Laden is killed, it practically happens off-screen. It's sudden, indecipherable from any of the other deaths in the house. And just like that, the journey is over.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is a film that fills me with a lot of mixed emotions. Yet I'm willing to forgive it for almost everything thanks to that final shot. The marines celebrate a successful mission. Maya silently nods to her co-worker, who shows her bin Laden's dead body. The next morning, she sits in solitude. As the helicopter door comes up behind her, she weeps in silence. Why she cries is up to the viewer to decide. Is it because she's spent a huge chunk of her life on this mission and is now wondering what's next? Is she relieved that this ordeal is over? Or do the scars of the experience linger on? It's a powerful, evocative moment and one that nearly makes the entire film.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is ultimately a hard movie to evaluate. When looked at as an expert piece of film making or a showcase for Chastain's abilities, it's obviously very impressive. However, the film remains an uncomfortable, exhausting watch. With the film being so closely tied to real life events, you are constantly distracted by the political ramifications of its storytelling. It strives for ambiguity yet the question of whether or not “Zero Dark Thirty” is for or against torture – and what that means for our country – makes the film difficult to discuss in any other context. I wonder if anyone could have made a satisfying movie telling this story. Some real world tales are too wrapped up in political, social and emotional baggage to be consumed in a two hour motion picture. I'm not saying Bigelow shouldn't have tried but a steadier grasp on the materiel would've helped. [Grade: C+]

The controversy around "Zero Dark Thirty" might have hurt its award season chances but Bigelow isn't one to back down from touchy subjects. Her next film, "Detroit," is another fact-based drama/thriller about the 1967 Detroit riot. It's also another collaboration with Mark Boal. Considering police brutality remains a serious concern, the film's timing couldn't be better. "Detroit" doesn't come until August and has already attracted some negative attention. The trailer is incredibly intense. Her career has bent in some interesting directions but Kathryn Bigelow remains an important cultural voice. I'm glad I did this retrospective.

Come back later in the week for another Director Report Card. Until next time, thanks for reading.

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