Another of our amazing bots, KMC1138, wrote an excellent review of Zero Dark Thirty which I would call the definitive review from BSR on this film. But in my discussions with her and some of the editorial staff, I had to add in my two bits becuase they are strikingly different from almost every other critic I have heard on this film.
Bottom line: This film is excellent. 3 solid stars. It ended up on my Best of 2012 list for a reason. I also happen to think Kathryn Bigelow was robbed of at least a nomination for Best Director. But it also ended up low on my list for a reason.
I originally saw Zero Dark Thirty the week before Christmas and came away with mixed feelings. And after I saw it top critic after critic's top 10 list of 2012 I almost had a fit. But after some chiding from critics whom I really respect, I decided to give it another chance with a late night showing opening weekend. Perhaps Id let my insufferable desire for holiday cheer interfere with my ability to appreciate the dark gritty nature of this masterpiece. Perhaps I was letting my political feelings get in the way because I hated the idea of justifying torture. Unfortunately, upon seeing it again tonight, my initial reaction was completely reinforced.
This was my reaction in my Top of 2012, where I placed it 23rd overall (for context, that would've been my 12th favorite movie of the year):
This is an intentional snub to put this so intentionally low. People need to calm the f— down about this movie. It’s good, it’s tense, and it blurs the line between justifying torture and not. As interesting as it was, it was immediately disavowed and condemned by the actual CIA, who said that none of the intelligence used in the raid on bin Laden actually came from torture. It makes for a better story, though. But when your movie purports to be based on the truth, and the truth is so recent, you can’t be so lackadaisical with basic facts. Great, Kathryn Bigelow-- we already know you can direct taut war thrillers. We saw The Hurt Locker. But Zero Dark Thirty is this year’s Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone wants to praise it because they can’t grapple with the moral dilemma behind it. To which I say: f@#$ that. This was a great movie. So was Hurt Locker. But it’s not /that/ great, people.
I stand by that now 200%. But, let me unpack all of that a bit, as it was quite (intentionally) glib and parsimonious.
First, to those of you who say it justified torture. No. No it does not. It glorifies violence in a way unseen outside of most other films this year. But that's justifying the military-industrial-intelligence complex, not torture. If anything, it shows you that torture. doesn't. work. They were so busy waterboarding these people that they missed, oh, the actual intelligence that led them to the guy they were looking for.
That being said, it doesn't condemn torture either. Which seems like they could've done that. Maybe someone says "Do you ever think maybe we didn't need to waterboard them? We didn't need to abuse them?" And someone else says, "Yes." That's it. But maybe Kathryn Bigelow wanted us to have to live in the grey areas. But I think that's being controversial just for being controversial's sake. Torture is wrong. It is bad. And most importantly, it doesn't work. So why not condemn it?
Because it's a gripping way to introduce a film, that's why. But it's also kind of a cheat. We're thrown into this visceral situation and put on edge and supposed to feel some sort of outrage or compunction or collective guilt. Or we feel like we're taking some revenge on that guy who we personify as being behind the murder of thousands of Americans. Like I said, it's a cheat.
Because Zero Dark Thirty, far from being about the search for Osama bin Laden, is all about character. Namely, the character of Jessica Chastain's Maya. But while we love Maya for her passion, we ultimately love her more for her intellect. She seems to be the only person in the entire film ahead of the curve. So, watching her react and interact with the prospect of torture... meh. Watching her in her element doing more straight up interrogations, sans waterboard? Beautiful. Masterful. And it places such a stain and such a strain right up front in the film that it detracts from the truly awesome moments later.
Like that last half hour with the actual raid on bin Laden's compound. Amazing. Beyond intense. Perfectly directed. So why'd you have to distract everyone with the stupid torture?
Again, because it's a damn fine way to introduce a film. But it's still a cheat. And that's what makes this great, not amazingly great.
Also a cheat are some of the liberties taken with the basic facts around the search for bin Laden and the CIA's intelligence programs. The fact that this is now under Congressional investigation shouldn't be surprising. What is surprising was how quickly the CIA condemned the film and refuted basic claims they made in the narrative. Either be like Argo and just say you're based on the true story, or stick to just the facts. Because you also do a disservice to the audience who will watch your film and take everything away as fact. Because, after all, it's those super-high tension moments of action or spy thriller that we all came to see anyway.
And to be fair, there were points where the film dragged. And as I sit here writing this review I popped in my Avengers Blu-Ray and started with where Iron Man flies into Stark Tower to threaten Loki. And as good as those last 3o minutes of Zero Dark Thirty are, and as awesome as Chris Pratt is as one of the Navy Seals, it is not even in the same league as Avengers for plot, script, character, morality, and sheer entertainment and artfulness.
It is, however, a fantastic film. And people should see it. And discuss it. Because as much as the film is worth seeing, those conversations are even more worth having.