Ends and Means

By Carl Kozlowski

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Posted January 10, 2013 in Film

Zero Dark Thirty raises questions about American torture tactics in the search for Osama bin Laden

There’s always a risk involved when a film attempts to depict historical events. While Lincoln has proven to be a formidable hit (though I still found the story behind America’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment during the Civil War a snoozer), it didn’t have to contend with being a white-hot center of controversy, since most people have had nearly 150 years to learn about our 16th president’s heroic efforts.

In Zero Dark Thirty, which hits theaters nationwide on Friday after playing on just a handful of screens in L.A. and New York for the past three weekends, director Katherine Bigelow and writer Mark Boal deal with a much timelier issue. Here, the artists behind 2009’s Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker have teamed up to detail the decade-long hunt that led to the killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

Since much of the effort to find and kill bin Laden is shrouded in secrecy, and many of those involved need to remain unknown for their own safety, Zero centers on a female CIA analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain), a fictional character based on an unnamed woman who was in the eye of the storm. At the film’s start, Maya is a fresh-faced and hopeful newbie to CIA operations, watching various forms of torture, including water boarding, being carried out on terrorist detainees believed to have information about bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Maya is at first shocked by what she sees done to the prisoners, serving as a surrogate conscience for the audience as other CIA employees and contractors keep pushing the moral envelope, raising serious questions about just how far interrogation tactics should be taken. However, as years pass and one false lead follows another, Maya appears to become hardened by the quest, losing some of her spirit in the process.

But when small breaks start adding up and U.S. leadership decides whether they have a definite location for bin Laden that can be struck, Maya’s persistence pays off with a tensely emotional catharsis. The problem is Maya’s singular devotion to the search hinders the audience’s sense of connection with her character; making it difficult to get riled up about the outcome of her work (not to mention the fact that the whole world knows how the effort turned out).

That sense of distance is a problem that’s only exacerbated by the film’s portrait of the Navy Seals involved in the actual mission as men who are supremely ready, willing and able to die on the toughest of missions, yet unable to reveal too much about themselves for fear of giving away important secrets that could jeopardize those missions. No doubt Boal and Bigelow were unable to get to know the real Seals very well. But, at the same time, a deeper sense of them as human beings would have paid off in raising the tension involved in the final mission, as opposed to making them seem like interchangeable video game characters.

Zero Dark Thirty is sometimes difficult to watch, especially in its highly graphic first-half depictions of water boarding and other CIA interrogation techniques. But there is something undeniably fascinating about Bigelow and Boal’s ability to fully immerse viewers in incredibly volatile situations, including the nerve-wracking final assault.

This is a movie that literally fits the old cliché “torn from today’s headlines,” as the filmmakers are themselves now being hounded by senators to reveal just how much they knew about torture tactics when making the film.

That fact makes Zero Dark Thirty an important and compelling film, but not one that could easily be labeled as entertaining.


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