Highly Political, Highly Personal: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

At a time when movies seem to be devoting themselves to fulfilling the bare minimum of expectations in terms of depth and have all but given up on ensuring that the audience is actually challenged, one can’t help but call Kathryn Bigelow anything other than a savior. After the unexpected success of her multi-awarded The Hurt Locker, it would’ve made sense to see her rest on her laurels and bask in her late career bloom. Instead, she went and made the best American film of 2012 and established herself not only as a force to finally be reckoned with, but also as one of the most challenging thinkers in the contemporary history of cinema.

Zero Dark Thirty, came to be known in popular circles as “the torture movie where America kills Osama bin Laden” and this reductive point of view led it to become quite controversial upon its release. Yet after Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal both stressed how their depiction was in no way endorsement, the movie’s reputation seems to have been diminished because people no longer cared to see the “America, fuck yeah!” spirit it appeared to highlight.

The truth is that while the movie’s plot revolves around the hunt for the Al Qaeda leader, its execution and the way the director brings the screenplay to life reveals that the matters at the center of the movie are two very thorough analyses; one which dissects the repercussions of the war on terror in the collective psyche (and its effects on how contemporary American history will be perceived in books), the other is a much more personal essay on how difficult it is to be a powerful woman in a male-centric world.

Zero Dark Thirty covers ten years of American history in two and a half hours, and begins with a pitch black screen only accompanied by the horrific calls received by emergency operators during 9/11. Without recurring to graphic images or morbid recreations, Bigelow instills a sense of true dread in her audience, reminding them of a chapter in their history that will never be forgotten, and masterfully encompassing why cinema can be so powerful and why the evolution from silents to “talkies” added a new dimension to the American artform by excellence. From this we are thrown straight into an interrogation chamber where we meet our protagonist: a young woman called Maya (Jessica Chastain) who Bigelow uses as her avatar.

Maya is strong willed, determined and appears to have no other purpose than to fulfill her mission. As played by Chastain, who needs only to use her endlessly expressive face to evoke an entire backstory (whose specifics always remain a mystery to the audience), Maya becomes almost sick in her mission to seek revenge. She reaches a point where all she can think of is finding and killing bin Laden. This is done without the use of obvious plot points, given that the movie plays out more like a bureaucratic procedural than an action thriller. During the decade long search we see this woman turn from a tremulous young agent into a cause, the effects of which lead to utter desolation in the film’s climax.

The year 2012 saw an array of movies deal with earlier American history as portals into how the past shaped the country’s present. Movies dealing with slavery, terrorism and powerful political leaders romanticized foreign policy, the equality movement and prophesied President Obama’s apparently inevitable reelection without ever using these themes as ways to wonder about the future. Movies like Lincoln and Argo, which thought they were holding a mirror, only come out like ancient postcards when juxtaposed with Bigelow’s insightful questioning, “Where are we going now?”

Zero Dark Thirty won’t be useful as a way to instruct youths about purely historical facts, but it will remain an incomparable document that captured a very specific tone, one could even say a collective spirit. The film is frustrating because in its depiction it never offers answers or fulfillment. To say it deserves a sequel would be a travesty, yet in a way, because it only provides us with a snapshot, it leaves us demanding more from Bigelow, wondering why she would “dare” pose such questions when she has in no way the medium to answer them.

Examining this, it becomes even more obvious how the screenplay touched on what seem like very personal points about Bigelow’s experience as a filmmaker who happens to be a woman. We see Maya battle endless sexism, to the point where she has to refer to herself as a “motherfucker” and deny herself any sort of sexual identity (“I’m not that girl who fucks” she confesses to another female colleague, played by the brilliant Jennifer Ehle, the only character in the movie who possesses any sort of earthy sexuality). Perhaps looking on the more obvious issues, we find Maya being questioned and doubted about her expertise, for the same reasons for which Bigelow has been undermined in the genres she’s mastered. Who do these women think they are to be doing a man’s work?

It’s hard not to look at Maya without wondering if Bigelow, too, seemed determined to fulfill a mission and prove she’s our greatest war filmmaker (truly, no one else should do contemporary military films after watching her tight, often enlightening work). Even if this theory proved to be untrue and there is nothing remotely biographical about the movie’s heroine, we are led to wonder about the very nature of what being a hero is all about.

In Zero Dark Thirty Bigelow ruminates on the existential implications of being a rescuer, without undermining the importance of hard work and professional ethics. Her marriage of efficiency and artistic fulfillment prove that she has a vision of an ideal America, perhaps unattainable at the moment, but never completely out of reach.

The Blu-ray presentation of Zero Dark Thirty is impeccable. The high definition transfer in fact helps add to the movie’s “docudrama” feel (which aid in raising questions about how our perceptions are altered by the aesthetics of what we see in movies and what we see on TV), most commendable even is the audio, through which the filmmaker establishes an entire new landscape that defines different moments by merely changing the aural elements. That the movie works as well with headphones as it does on a huge movie screen is remarkable.

Included in this edition are a few featurettes about the movie’s production, one of which completely dedicates itself to showing the production teams’ work on the bin Laden compound. The other featurettes have us take a look at the cast in real military gear and another concentrates on Chastain’s immersion into her role.

RATING 10 / 10