My generation does not know the war of movies past. We do not know the air raid drill, or hiding under our school desks, we have never had a vainglorious kiss on any V-Day. We don’t know the epic steady-cam tracking shot or the confetti parade. We know fear for our husbands and wives, our brothers and sisters. We know dusty chaos and fear that a truck will explode in front of our bank. We know Kathryn Bigelow’s war.
“Zero Dark Thirty” opens in blackness, and the only sounds are snippets of 911 calls placed on September 11th, 2001. My experience was not gratuitous; I felt it all over again, but this time with far less hate and fear. The journey back is necessary and helps the viewer return to a place when we were all so hungry for justice, and there we meet Maya. Played by Jessica Chastain, Maya is loosely based on a real person, and it is her work that leads a decade long manhunt to its successful end. She is joined by a CIA team that operates out of several locations in the Middle East, including several detainment camps. I have heard several complaints of gratuitous violence, and even saw some calls to boycott the film. The scenes of torture were not without reason, and in my cynical eye were, in all likelihood, Disney compared to actual events. No human beings were treated with disrespect. There was no heartless torture master, there were no shrieking zealots.
The film is comprised of almost entirely hand held shots, but the shaky-cam was not nearly as “guerilla-film” as I expected. The camera work was noticeable without being distracting, and was especially effective in the oddest of places – the close-ups. Maya is young and conflicted but her shell is tough and confident. The camera almost serves as character development. Maya might be young and tough (having already gained fame as “a killer”), but Chastain plays the discomfort in the torture cells just as powerfully as the demanding low-level op who is working for her own vengeance as well as her country’s security. The first acts of “Zero Dark Thirty” are espionage thriller – interrogations, moles, double agents and diversions. Tension builds slowly as leads are found and lost, battles won and risks assessed. If any fat could have been trimmed from the film’s 2:37 run time, it could have been during these moments, notably while trying to find notorious courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. While the means to locate the man were crafty, the scenes became redundant.
By act three, I remembered why I was madly in love with Kathryn Bigelow. She shot a night time covert op and still managed to create some of the most striking imagery I have ever seen. Unlike other films that utilize large military teams, this one was easy to follow, characters were not lost, and not once did I have to squint and remind myself where the action was taking place or heading. Night vision was used sparingly as a device, but night sights and goggle helmets made the action almost alien and completely submersive.
I cannot speak to the historical accuracy of the film, as I didn’t follow the story as it originally developed and did not research it before the film. When I go to the movies, it’s because I want to see a good movie, and I have rarely taken fault with Hollywood taking artistic license. Especially when the facts (as we are meant to know them, anyway) are readily available in countless other mediums.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is not a patriotic film. It is the story of a woman’s quest, but in its details prompts discussion on what humans are capable of when confronted with war and genocide. Americans are not flawless heroes (but heroes all the same), and the death of the greatest villain my generation has yet to face is treated with dignity and without pomp. If Bigelow isn’t careful, she just might re-define a genre.