Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Recent Watches: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Do you think Kathryn Bigelow intentionally reinvented herself as a “serious” Oscar-caliber filmmaker? Before “The Hurt Locker” made her the first female Best Director winner, Bigelow was a genre worksmith, pumping out awesome action-fest like “Near Dark,” “Point Break,” and “Blue Steel,” not unlike a more prolific version of her famous ex-husband James Cameron. It’s not like “The Hurt Locker” was that far outside of her established wheelhouse anyway. Maybe her critical reevaluation truly was an accidental move. Either way, her career sure has changed now.

Despite “Zero Dark Thirty” obviously being a big important serious film with lots of awards-quality shine to it, Kathryn Bigelow is still largely operating as a genre filmmaker. She frames the squirmy, frequently uncomfortable real life subject matter in cinematic terms the audience is all ready familiar with. The first act finally ends well over an hour into the film when a defining event happens to the protagonist, Maya. An operation goes wrong, a cooperating informant reveals himself to be a suicide bomber, and a close friend dies. This time: It’s personal. The quest to find and assassinate Osama bin Laden becomes a quest of revenge.

Similarly, much of “Zero Dark Thirty” functions as a closed-room mystery. Jessica Chastain stares tersely at photographs, surveillance footage, following leads all the while. Like a renegade cop in an eighties action movie, she argues with her superiors who don’t appreciate her style to solving the case. Her frank language among the higher-ups cuts through the bureaucratic bullshit of the office. She is stuck on the bad guy, who is obviously the bad guy, even if her bosses insists that he’s unimportant. However, instead of the bad guy being an iron-clad crime boss with some sort of European accent, its Osama fucking bin Laden.

I can’t tell if re-framing real events in these terms is tasteful or not. (Though it certainly explains the movie’s success with the mainstream public.) Especially since “Zero Dark Thirty” never backs away from the harsh, uncomfortable truths. The movie begins with harrowing audio from September 11th that, played against a stark black screen, is incredibly disturbing. Perhaps the filmmaker is presenting this to us in order to justify the desperate measures the characters go too? A large percentage of the film’s early half deals openly with “advanced interrogation” techniques. The interrogee is water-boarded, strung up with ropes, forced into a box about the size of a large luggage trunk, and blasted with death metal for hours on in. Despite the best efforts of Jason Clarke, the man doing the torture still comes off as an unlikeable jock. (Are we even suppose to like the guy? I'm not sure.) To be perfectly honest, there aren’t really any likable characters in “Zero Dark Thirty.” Everyone is too severe, too consumed by their mission, to have much personality. The characters seem to be intentional ciphers, since the film directly avoids casting any recognizable movie stars. Aside from Chastain and small roles from Mark Strong and a heavily made-up James Gandolfini, the cast is filled with unfamiliar character actors. 

To also be perfectly honest, I found most of “Zero Dark Thirty” to be either boring or upsetting. When the movie actually threatens to make things personable, like when two people meet for dinner in a fancy hotel, it immediately offsets it with another terrorist attack, another bomb, another explosion. I guess this is obviously correct for what the film is about. Nobody would expect a movie about hunting terrorist to be cuddly. But what about the boredom? All that internal affairs stuff went pretty much over my head. There’s a lot of insular drama about whither they are tracking the right guy with a beard. Compelling scenes like a prisoner being taken out for a nice lunch or Chastain being attacked by machine-gun wielding terrorists in her driveway seem separated by a lot of long scenes of people sitting around in rooms and talking.

Finally, two hours into the film, things start to pick up. The team gets a bead on Osama and finally start to close in. At this point, “Zero Dark Thirty” becomes captivating. Watching the screws turn and pieces fall into place probably shouldn’t be the most satisfying part of a mystery but frequently is anyway. In the last half-hour when the SEALs team is thrown together on literal black helicopters (To throw even more bones to conspiracy theorists, the black helicopters are located in Area 51) and flown over to complete the mission is when the film suddenly becomes excellent. Bigelow seems especially talented at putting the audience in the place of soldiers in the heat of combat. The raid on bin Laden’s compound is intense, with soldiers in cramp quarters dodging machine gun fire, never knowing what’s right around the corner. When the big fat kill comes, it happens in a nicely anticlimactic fashion. I don’t know if the film is too long or drags its feet, since all that previous information ends up being pretty important. I think the case can be made for presenting it in a more likable, compelling fashion.

Jessica Chastain’s performance is good but she’s only truly impressive when allowing her vulnerable side to show, which happens maybe twice in the whole movie. (The last scene admittedly impressed me.) I think her Oscar chances are officially in peril. “Zero Dark Thirty” is certainly not as good a film as “The Hurt Locker” and I honestly have to question the motivation of making a historical film about a historical event still fresh in the public’s recent memory. After watching it, I do say it probably deserved to be nominated for Best Editing, which is the most notably well done aspect of the whole film. [5/10]

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