Zero Dark Thirty – Art 2/5 Ent 5/5 Worth 4/5
The only healthy, intelligent way to approach cinema -whether its objective is to entertain or edify you- is to do so with an open mind, recognizing that while what’s depicted might aim to communicate or provoke truth, it most certainly is not real. There is a gale of controversy ripping Zero Dark Thirty from its moorings of purported truth, but perhaps the linchpin to this storm of criticism was born from Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s failure to understand precisely how arrogant it is to walk the line between journalism and art, especially on an issue so massively complex, so unbearably prolix, so uncomfortably proximal. If there’s anything to take away from this controversy, it’s that this film would have been received far differently if there were only marginally more diligent and skeptical research conducted.
But however decent the research was would have only saved Bigelow and Boal from the most piercing of politicized criticism. There’s the elephant in the room of just how fresh these incidents are that render any pretension toward objectivity moot. On-the-ground reporting with lightning-fast dissemination in the age of premature twitter deaths and unnecessarily breaking news on CNN has done nothing to shake the ironclad general rule that the further along we push hindsight, the closer to the truth we get. When William L Shirer submitted The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for publication, he was knowingly gambling by doing it so soon after the war, with the odious and unwieldy nature of the summarized history weighing upon him. While All the President’s Men was undeniably a fine movie despite being an almost current affair, if it were made today, we’d know Deep Throat’s primary intent was to undermine his boss so he could have his job, not necessarily topple the President.
Édgar Ramírez, one of the many incredible supporting actors in ZDT, had previously played the titular role in Olivier Assayas’ excellent film/mini-series Carlos, about Communist terrorist Carlos the Jackal, which bears notable resemblances. Like ZDT, Carlos reduces the sympathy, glamour, and romance of an epic history to a very realist portrait, replete with cinema vérité shaky cam moments, violence that is almost mundane, an utter lack of heroism, and a loose at best arc. I’d go so far as to wonder if the casting of Ramírez indicates a causal inspiration for Bigelow and Boal. What I don’t wonder in the least is how much more easily Carlos was digested almost 4 decades after the character depicted began his crusade against capitalism. How much easier it was received with European audiences being well along the road of reconciliation from Cold War tumult, and how easier it was for the filmmakers to train their drama more closely on a narrative vigorously built by historians. They used documents and tapes unveiled from Stasi records, and not CIA company men tightly gripping their files, still intimately involved in protecting themselves not just for legacy, but for further statecraft right now.
Let’s not lie to ourselves here: what Bigelow and Boal are attempting is a docu-drama, a fictionalized journalistic account. Mark Boal himself is a former journalist. He’s stated on ZDT that “I don’t want to play fast and loose with history,” yet here you are Mark, with Glenn Greenwald and dozens of other journalists, pundits, and even United States Senators climbing up your ass. As far as we know right now, no amount of muckraking was done that wasn’t known or assumed beforehand. You can appreciate a more complete and even livelier presentation of the facts on a Wikipedia page dedicated to the hunt for Bin Laden – a damning thought that signifies the credulousness of the filmmakers in relation to the CIA and Obama administration officials who treated them with access. I don’t see a Devil’s Bargain here so much as smooth operators guiding fanny pack tourists to the gift shop.
If it were a Devil’s Bargain such as in Top Gun (or any other number of films that spew from the fount of rent-seeking at the office the Pentagon has specifically set up to promote positive portrayals of itself in exchange for consulting and the military’s big toys), we might have been more properly served. If Bigelow and Boal had dispensed with the ostentation of attempting journalism or realism, and just delivered it as a sensational grit-and-gore build up to the main dish of the expertly filmed final act, many problems would evaporate. While we’re not lying to ourselves here, let’s dispense with the codswallop that this film is really about the torture that’s caught so much hell fire, and admit it’s all about the final act. Killing Bin Laden in reality meant nothing until we made a Hollywood movie to anoint the act by dragging his dead body into our theaters in the manner of a victorious triumph. But since everybody is fooling themselves here, the fact that most reaction to the torture scenes is unalloyed disgust or horror betrays how we are improperly receiving this as “real”, because the torture depicted is very mild in comparison to the “unreal” stuff we commonly see in cinema.
If receiving the films of genius documentarians like Michael Moore, Errol Morris or Leni Riefenstahl as “real” is disreputable for any thoughtful person who really ought to understand the amount of artifice and editorializing involved -even in a documentary- then anybody who takes docudrama equally seriously is a prima facie moron. When Naomi Wolf drew a comparison between ZDT and the documentaries of Riefenstahl, such as Triumph of the Will, she aimed at the common collusion between artist and evil political forces (to not consider any difference in magnitudes of evil here is embarrassing for Wolf). The problem with this comparison is that despite her collaboration, Leni didn’t necessarily get her facts wrong, and she achieved her outward goals succinctly. Therefore, while her actual integrity was pretty much dirt, her artistic integrity was intact. Bigelow and Boal, however, were led on by CIA sources towards a focus on torture’s supposedly indispensable efficacy that was intensely disingenuous at best, and a nakedly malicious lie at worst. It’s hard to consider an artistic goal to have been met, if Bigelow and Boal began with the premise of journalistic realism.
Since the controversy has billowed from the first screenings of ZDT, Bigelow and Boal have retreated from their initial insistence on it being a “reported film” to the sturdier redoubt of artistic license. This is the same fortress of protesting “tink, tink, can’t get me!” while playing cops and robbers as children, or more furtively in the mold of Jon Stewart once he’s called out on an inaccuracy, that he’s merely a satirist with a wider allowance of untruth than that of the legitimate journalists he rakes across the coals nightly. Which is convenient, because if we are to evaluate ZDT purely on artistry and entertainment, its merits rise appreciably. Bigelow’s ability to take a story and an ending we already know, and wrench out a pulsating and gripping thriller is nothing short of incredible. The final raid on Abbottabad, wherein DEVGRU special ops. SEALs wildly outmatch an almost undefended compound was as heart-pounding as any of the more even-footed battle scenes in Band of Brothers, and it recalled the perspective of the villains in Bigelow’s cult classic vampire film Near Dark.
Even then, however, judged on its merit as a drama, this is a film that features many composite characters, and a massively epic narrative distilled into barely more than two hours. What is lost in a two hour plus recounting of a tale stretching ten massive years hunting for Bin Laden is not only the necessary counterargument to torture’s efficacy that would have tempered the apologia, but any essential artistic purpose whatsoever. Consider Joe Wright’s recent adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. By any measure, it wasn’t that fantastic of a film. If anything, it was another excuse for Keira Knightley to underwhelm in a corset. Its undeniable strength, however, was a beautifully expressionist loosening of past loyalties in adapting the novel. Wright takes us where the previous miserable bores from ’97 and ’48 (starring Sophie Marceau and Vivien Leigh, respectively) don’t bother venturing, by simply surrendering any ambition to properly adapt Tolstoy’s dauntingly massive and detailed novel. Instead, Wright’s film distills an epic length into a visual complement to the spirit of the novel that’s somewhere between a simple painting and the properly lengthy 2000 mini-series adaption starring Helen McCrory. It moves almost like a musical without music, and it works wonderfully.
Am I saying Bigelow and Boal ought to have done “Abbottabad: The Musical”? However amusing that would have been, I don’t think it’s necessary to go that far. In fact, I think this demonstrates the utter contradictory impossibility of competently distilling an epic into a pocket-epic while aiming for the sincerity projected from a realist shaky cam image. Nearly everything that was great about Zero Dark Thirty pops out at you only in the final stretch. It would have suffered not at all with that as its focus. What we’re treated to in the first hour and a half is a depiction of torture that Bigelow and Boal got wrong, and frequent milestone reminders of where we are in recent history, the players all conveniently somehow involved. This is too precious. All of the other objections aside, the greatest marker of B&B being out of their depth when they engaged with CIA and administration officials was their depiction of both: it was simplistic, cliched, hackneyed even, almost sinking the film at times. A more contained drama featuring the time span of the final hour (roughly the Obama years) would have eliminated a decent chunk of criticism.
I would really hesitate to throw this film under the bus, like so many who object to it on political grounds are doing right now. To each their own, in all cases, but solely as a work of cinema, ZDT is very interesting. Jessica Chastain can simply do no wrong, and I’m dreading the day Hollywood decides her “moment” is over. Along with Jennifer Lawrence, she’s at the head of the class in the next generation of actresses. Her Aspergers’y personality controls the dispassionate, emotionless tenor of the entire film. She deserves any award coming her way. And as I stated earlier, Bigelow’s grasp of tension is tremendous. K Bigs might not be politically savvy, but she’s in the zone while building up tension in a thriller. If the SEALs actually used four-eyed monster helmets and the stealth-blackhawks actually look as Klingon jagged as that, then life really is imitating the art of Sci-Fi.
One last thing: did anybody else think the stealth-blackhawk ride with the SEALs was a bit of James Cameron rubbing off on his ex-wife, or was that just me? Maybe he forced her to watch Aliens, specifically the dropship scene, about half a dozen times. That’s probably the first thing I’d subject a woman to.
further reading on Zero Dark Thirty:
ZDT: CIA hagiography, pernicious propaganda by Glenn Greenwald
ZDT and the CIA’s Hollywood Coup by Michael Hastings
Through a Glass Darkly by David Cole
‘Disturbing’ & ‘Misleading’ by Steve Coll