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Not always pretty, but 'Zero Dark Thirty' still a must-see movie

Contributor

Published: Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 09:01


Some have called “Zero Dark Thirty” an amoral movie, and I can understand why they’d feel that way. The film is initially more concerned with laying out facts (the film claims to be based on first-hand accounts) than getting a point across.

The first thing you see is darkness -- phone calls that took place during 9/11 played over a completely black screen. Then, early emergency reports of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, calls from a passenger of one 9/11 flight and someone trapped within the wreckage of the WTC. Nothing tells you how you should feel, or what characters think.

These are standard film conventions, sure, but they’re applied to a non-conventional plot.

The scenes immediately following the dark screen depict someone, who we’re told worked for someone who may have worked for Osama Bin Laden, being waterboarded, stripped naked, and noise-tortured. Besides the uncomfortable reactions of CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), you’re never told, explicitly or implicitly, how to feel.

CIA operatives discuss the aforementioned torture and the hundreds of deaths involved in the hunt for the Taliban with a matter-of-fact tone not unlike how police officers discuss the dead bodies they investigate.

It’s the way they emotionally distance themselves from what they’re seeing or doing so they can do their job.

The film also moves much too fast to let you gather your thoughts.

The ten-year interval between 9/11 and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden happens in two and a half hours, with lots of short scenes that take place years apart. Up until the end, you’re more concerned with digesting information than developing an emotional response.

This may be what led people to call the film amoral; it’s uncomfortable, not knowing how you should feel.

But as Director Kathryn Bigelow pointed out to the Los Angeles Times in a recent interview, “depiction isn’t endorsement.”

It should be clear that Maya is the clear hero and Bin Laden the bad guy. But even after Bin Laden’s Pakistani compound becomes the stage for a sequence matching the desert sniper scene in “The Hurt Locker” (Bigelow directed both films) pound-for-pound in intensity, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think.

Maya’s our hero, sure, but she’s painted as a stereotypical antisocial genius, and even her success is cast in the shadow of what (and who) she sacrifices to “beat” Bin Laden.

And was the film the patriotic pat on the back it seemed like in trailers or was it condemning the methods the CIA used to get Bin Laden -- basically asking “was it worth it?”

Even after Bin Laden is killed and everyone breathes a sigh of relief, I didn't feel like celebrating.

But I wouldn’t call the film “amoral.” It’s more like dramatic journalism in vein of “All the President’s Men.”

It presents information, shows you how that information was obtained and asks that you draw your own conclusion.

It encourages you to think about the realities of what it’s presenting without preaching. It encourages you to do research, to find out more about what is and isn’t true about what it’s showing you.

And it enthralls you while doing so.  
Amoral or not, it’s extraordinary filmmaking.

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