In the End, Everybody Breaks: Zero Dark Thirty

In the End, Everybody Breaks:

Zero Dark Thirty


I would imagine that by now almost anyone turning to a review of director Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty knows that it centres on the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the terrorist behind the bombing of New York’s Twin Towers, amongst other things, by an elite CIA team of investigators.  So I’ll set that aside for the moment and at least try to tackle the main controversy that surrounds the film.

Actually, there are several hot potatoes when it comes to this movie but the main one that I’ve been hearing this week revolves around its use of torture.

So:  to be blunt, does Zero Dark Thirty glorify and even justify the use of torture?  In my opinion, no it does not. It certainly shows torture, there’s no two ways about that; but showing something and condoning it are two very different things.  Indeed, in the unblinking eye of the camera that Bigelow uses to film these really distressing scenes it seems to me that she has defused one of the other allegations that are being thrown at her:  namely, that she has allowed herself to be used as an establishment pawn.  Frankly, I am at a loss to see how that feeling has come about, although I think that there’s no doubt that she has been helped at an official level.  Bigelow seems to me to be smart enough and tough enough to have compromised—and this she must have had to do—on her own terms.

Yet leaving aside the fact that she is not flinching from showing us her countrymen and women in a less than flattering light, she also includes a short but telling scene in which President Obama is seen on a television screen in the background whilst three CIA operatives are discussing strategy.  The President is telling an interviewer that “America doesn’t torture”.  This is ironic in the extreme as we, the audience, have just witnessed a lengthy and brutal interrogation during which the lead character Maya (Jessica Chastain) is told in no uncertain terms by her colleague:

“Just so you know.  This is going to take a while.  He has to know how helpless he is.”  Then later he adds:  “In the end, everybody breaks.”

Now that to me seems fairly unambivelant and certainly does not show America in a good light at all.  Quite apart from the fact that torture dehumanises the torturer it has been shown time and again to be unreliable and often leading to false information, thus doing more harm than good.  Yet other studies have shown it to work.  I would tend to think that the facts over a long period would seem to support the former, but the truth is that I don’t know.  I am also guilty of some hypocrisy.  The nice, civilized side of me may be shocked by, for example, the scenes of waterboarding; but the fact is that if I had lost a loved one in the Towers or indeed on a London bus then I would want anyone with information going through whatever torture was deemed necessary..  I’d worry about abstracts like ethics later.

We the viewers are put into an uncomfortable position here.  Bigelow keeps her movie very low-key for the most part and I would argue that she does as much as could be humanly expected of her in order to show the torture without being voyeuristic.  Yet cinema, by its very nature is voyeuristic.  How can it not be?

“Torture’s Handmaiden…”?

Some of the attacks on her quite simply verge on the ridiculous, perhaps none more so than the insufferably smug Naomi Wolf (attempt to read her self-congratulatory book of New Age baloney The Treehouse and you’ll know exactly what I mean).  Wolf has come out with a ludicrously over-the-top statement comparing Bigelow to Adolf Hitler’s favourite film director, Leni Riefenstahl:

“Like Riefenstahl, you are a great artist.  But now you will be remembered forever as torture’s handmaiden”.

What absolute bullshit.  Still, I suppose that it’s better than being remembered as the author of The Treehouse.

I feel as if I shouldn’t be spending so much time discussing these things when it is as a film that Zero Dark Thirty should be judged; but in a film of such sensitivity it would surely be wrong to ignore these objections altogether.  However, others are arguing the political side of it better than I, so I’ll just observe with a shrug of the shoulders how odd it is that in pleasing no political sides Bigelow has succeeded in crafting a film that is a complete triumph in the cinematic sense.

She opens without credits, but after a short caption which says that first- hand accounts have been used, the date ‘September 11, 2001’ comes up on the screen.  This viewer briefly wondered how the film makers were going to show the always-emotive shots of the crashing planes in any kind of new light.  Instead the screen stays black…and stays black for what seems like a very long time.  On the soundtrack are the sounds of panicked phone calls and the words of rescue workers.  Sitting there in the dark looking at a dark screen and hearing these voices is an extraordinarily effective way of opening this very dark film.

The next caption is ‘2 years later’ and we are into the first of the torture scenes.  Quietly observing this is a figure with a balaclava and as they emerge into the light it is something of a shock when the hood is removed and it is a woman’s face that we’re looking at.  Our own prejudices have a light shone on them immediately.  Why should we think that a woman is less able to participate in barbarity than a man?  Bigelow (herself a woman working at something that is traditionally seen as a male task, especially in this genre) undercuts our expectations in small, subtle but effective ways throughout the film.

Maya, who is the lady in the hood, at first seems like a frail and wispy woman; but from that first shot of her face she is well able to carry this film.  It must have been quite a job to find an actress that could take us along with them, even though she isn’t particularly a person that is easy to empathise with.

From here we follow in meticulous, but never tedious, detail the efforts of the team and of Maya in particular over the period of a decade.  You’ll hardly need a spoiler alert when I tell you that they get their man in the end; and the decision to film this largely through the point-of-view night goggles of the Navy SEALs is another perfect decision from Kathryn Bigelow and her team.  So is the fact that we never see as much as an image of bin Laden throughout the movie and here, with him lying dead, we see him at only the most oblique of angles.

This is a film that stays with you long after the credits have rolled and it was only later that it occurred to me that there never was much of a discussion—was there any at all?—on taking him alive.  Indeed, the ruthlessness with which the Americans execute their mission in front of terrified women and children is hardly the stuff of heroic tales of yore.  But it is undoubtedly more realistic.

The film closes with Maya boarding a plane that she is the sole passenger on, her hunches of the past years having been vindicated.  Now she is ‘pretty important’ in the eyes of the pilot, who also utters the last words of the film:  “Where do you want to go?”  There is no answer.  After the single task to which your entire working life has been devoted is over, where would you see yourself going?

As a single tear runs down her cheek the camera holds on her face and as the film  ends we are left with the feeling that we have seen something quite different from what we expected.

Well, that’s just me being pompous and using the royal ‘we’.  I’m sure as many people hated it; but I really hope not.

The screenplay is by Mark Boal and, although it seems quite spare at times, it comes as a surprise when we consider how much information he has managed to impart.

The use of music is so restricted that for a while I didn’t notice how effective the soundtrack is, when used.  It is by Alexandre Desplat.

Zero Dark Thirty is nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay.  I doubt if America is ready for a film that shines such a harsh light on it, but we’ll see.




Author: Charley Brady

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  1. I’ve no problem with the torture depiction, so western countries use/used torture?, well shiver me timbers!!, it came from source material from within the CIA anyway, at least the guy been tortured in this still had his head attached to his shoulders when they were finished with him, unlike many unfortunate western captives who fell into the hands of these fanatical muslims.
    Much ado about nothing, just like the movie itself.

    I’m not exactly sure how the academy come to their conclusions for their award nominations?, I’m sure the recent success of The Hurt Locker was a major contributory factor in this case?, well after watching this borefest, in future I’ll take their opinions with a rather large pinch of salt.

    Bigelow while not a prolific director has had a bit of a mixed bag down the years, Near Dark was a brilliant original take on the Vampire genre, Point Break was a hectic roller coaster of a ride, but she also has a few duds on her cv, I liked the Hurt Locker but I thought it was a tad overrated, to me “Zero Dark Thirty” is vastly overrated. Nominated for 5 Oscars, another 22 wins & 32 nominations, c’mon?.
    I’m sure the Oscar hype helped enormously in swelling the box office sales?.

    Jessica Chastain won a Golden Globe for playing the part of a robot in ZDT?, she’s a fine fine actress, her performances in “The Help” and “Take Shelter” are testament to that, but her role in this hardly taxed her abilities, in fact virtually all the characters in the movie are robotic like.

    The film moves at a snails pace from the very get go, even the torture scenes are dull?, its made up of mostly boring dialogue with the odd explosion and shoot out tossed in every half hour or so to liven up the experience a bit, which led us to the films inevitable conclusion, and even that was anti climatic.
    Was America’s most wanted man Osama Bin Laden’s (a man instrumental in the deaths of thousands of people) dead body really treated with such respect in real life?, talk about political correctness to appease the muslim hordes?.

    I seen a recent 2 hour documentary on CH4 about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden with reconstruction of various events and it kept me rivetted and thoroughly entertained throughout, not so ZDT, in fact ZDT played like a really dull documentary, there was a good movie in there itching to get out, maybe if they snipped an hour off it’s running time, condensced it and allowed a bit of character development I might have been entertained?, not constantly struggling to keep my eyelids from closing, and I’m far from on my own here, many others I know who had seen it thought much the same, it’s all well and good trying to be different and not be cliche Hollywood but don’t forget movies are an entertainment medium, sadly Kathryn well in my opinion anyway, entertain was something you failed to do here.

    I can’t go without recalling this scene during the final shootout, a crowd of locals were gathering and walking towards the commotion going on at the Osama house, one of the Seal’s was shouting through a megaphone in their native tongue for them to stop and go back but they kept coming, suddenly he says it in English and they all instantly came to a halt, I’m not sure what Kathryn was trying to depict here, was she trying to say if it was the local miltary the locals were not scared and would’ve kept coming, but when they realised they were really Americans they were scared shitless?, or did she think some of her audience were not bright enough to figure out what he was actually saying in their native tongue?, if that was the case nothing a few subtitles wouldn’t have sorted out?.

    Sorry Charley we disagree on this one!.

  2. Bloody hell, that’ll wake ye up in the morning! Haven’t even had my coffee yet and now I feel like putting a shooter in it!

    Great post, Patrick! I can take constructive and sensible criticism all day. It’s only when someone says something daft like “‘Dark Knight Rises’ is good” that I lose the rag. So: where to begin? Well, I don’t think that the torture scenes will be as controversial on this side of the Atlantic as they seem to be on the other. Already this week I’ve had a difference of opinion with an American lady who denies that they use torture at all. You can quote all the inside sources you like but when some people get an idea in their heads you’re not going to change them. The odd thing was that she didn’t deny the waterboarding. Looks like torture to me.

    One thing that I love about movies is that half a dozen people can look at the same one and all see something different. With ZDT you got a borefest, whereas I looked at my watch when it ended, wondering where the time had gone! I was going to say that I enjoyed this even MORE than “The Hurt Locker” but maybe I better not go there, heh heh.

    We can agree on one thing and that is the odd choices made when it comes to Oscar time. I suspect that, like most genuine film fans, you don’t pay much heed to them. They seem to go through phases anyway. Do you recall a few years back when every Oscar nomination was centred around the disabled? If it wasn’t the lovely deaf lady in “Children of a Lesser God” it was autistic Dustin memorising phone books. And then there was that fella in the wheel chair. I could just imagine Academy big shots ‘doing a power breakfast’, thinking about their hedonistic lifestyles and wondering how they could feel better about their pampered selves. “Oh, I know. Let’s give it to the autistic guy, even though in real life we’d cross the road to avoid him.”

    It’s the kind of thinking that leads to a crying jag like “Ordinary People” winning out over a masterpiece like “Raging Bull”. In fact when I see ‘nominated for X amount’ it is usually enough to have me put the film on the very long finger.

    Anyway, wandered off on one there, Patrick. As you say, we’ll agree to disagree although I suspect that most back you up. God knows I seemed to be the only one in my vicinity who liked “The Hurt Locker”!

    Thanks for such a great mail, Patrick, and keep them coming. (Actually, just recalling your last one—what is it with you and shoot outs!?)

    Now: let’s see how we square off on “Lincoln”. Coming to a blog near you soon! (That doesn’t count as the usual Oscar turn off, it’s got Daniel Day-Lewis in it!)

    Oh by the way, did “Flight” get any nominations? I haven’t checked yet but I saw it last night and it is a CRACKER.


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