She Said/She Said: Zero Dark Thirty

BY EMILY GAGNE AND JENNA SIMPSON

Back in 2008, Kathyrn Bigelow made history, becoming the first woman to take home the Best Director Oscar for the Iraq War-set drama The Hurt Locker.  Four years later, she’s back with a new, even more politically motivated film, Zero Dark Thirty.  This serious Best Picture contender follows the highly tense events leading up to the capture and killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the remarkable female CIA agent behind it all. Due to its content and slight feminist slant, the film has become quite the watercooler topic among us Filles. So we thought what better way to cover it than to have two of our most passionate Filles, Emily and Jenna, head up a joint review.

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SAY YES TO THE JESS!

E: Whenever someone I know seems hesitant to check out Zero Dark Thirty, I sing-yell, “But, but … it’s Jess!”  Even if you are turned off by the general subject matter of the film, you will appreciate the power of Jessica Chastain’s towering performance as cunning and entirely committed CIA agent Maya. Despite playing a character knee deep in deep, dark situations (see: the torture-themed section below), Chastain lights up the screen with her relentless and realistic delivery. Throughout the film, her face appears extremely focused, as she’s both literally and figuratively got her eyes on her prize. Don’t be surprised if you look the same as you watch her, particularly during the latter half of the film, when she makes positively poignant use of the word “motherfucker” and cries like, well, a motherfucker.

A lot of people are comparing Chastain’s performance to that of Claire Danes on Homeland, as both her character and Danes’ are strong females hellbent on catching terrorists, despite the lack of support from their co-workers. Since I have only seen clips of Homeland, I can’t say I agree exactly. But, if Danes is as remarkable to watch on that show as Chastain is in this film, they deserve all the TV and movie gold in the world.

J: Can someone tell me exactly where Jessica Chastain came from? I hadn’t heard of her prior to 2011, and all of a sudden, there she was, everywhere I looked, in amazing movies and doing an amazing job. Since she burst on the scene, I’ve been mesmerized by her. She is starting to really become one of the best actresses of her generation, with two Oscar nominations already under her belt.

Anyway, Chastain is a marvel in Zero Dark Thirty. Her character undergoes a pretty serious transformation, from being a promising, but green analyst to becoming a respected expert on the Osama bin Laden file, although an annoyingly tenacious one. While the character may have been written a bit one-dimensional, as a committed and uncritical patriot who just might fall somewhere on “the spectrum,” Chastain brings great depth to the role. The emotional range she demonstrates here, from her anger at bureaucratic nonsense to her sense of loss and emptiness after OBL is killed, is remarkable. Naomi Watts and Jennifer Lawrence better watch out come Oscar night.

Zero Dark - Faces

THE TORTURE

J: It is widely known that the U.S. government used torture to interrogate detainees after 9/11. Thus, Zero Dark Thirty depicts torture. Jose Rodriguez, a retired CIA officer and the former head of Counterterrorism during the period that ZDT examines, has said that the way torture, including waterboarding, is depicted in the film is inaccurate. He claims that waterboarding was performed not on dirty mattresses on the floor of some secret CIA black site after days of abuse and deprivation, but on a gurney at Guantanamo Bay, and that the water poured over a piece of cloth held over detainee’s mouths to make them believe they were drowning came not from a bucket but from a bottle. I say, does it really matter?

Of course, a film will use dramatic license to tell a story. But surely the moral outrage felt by those of us who disagree with the use of torture techniques is directed towards the act of torture itself, not the method by which it was carried out. Just because medical professionals were there to supervise the acts of torture doesn’t make the torture itself better or more ethical.

In any case, the scenes depicting torture here were very, very hard to watch. I am a very sensitive, empathetic person. Watching the brutal ways in which human beings can dehumanize each other and treat each other like less than animals is a difficult and painful experience. My point is, be warned. If you find violence difficult to watch on film, be prepared, because this isn’t easy.

E: I’m not one to hide my face in my jacket while watching a movie. I mean, I’m the kind of girl who sat through Hostel quite comfortably. But this is a whole other kind of torture. First of all, you know that despite some very public claims to the contrary, these acts, or acts very similar to them, actually occurred at some point. Also, Bigelow does not shy way from close-ups of the horrific actions and or reactions, making things seem even more real than you can imagine.

All that said, I think that as uncomfortable as these sequences are, they are a necessary evil, an important piece of what is, by its very nature, an uncomfortably compelling story. While I’m not sure I can say Bigelow wasn’t trying to make a somewhat button-pushing point with them (one memorable moment sees a clip of U.S. president Barack Obama denying torture tactics on TV), I firmly agree with everything she has said in her defense. This quote in particular summarizes things for me: “War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.”

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THE (OSAMA) BIN REVEAL

E: Let’s be honest, everyone who goes to see this movie is going so they can see how Kathryn Bigelow handles the finale, in which a number of U.S. soldiers hunt down and kill Osama Bin Liden in his hideout. Seeing the first commercial, I thought, “Wait, are they getting an actor to play Osama? Are we going to see his face as he dies?!” The answers to those two questions are, respectively, yes and no.

A man does embody Osama for his limited on-screen scenes, but we don’t see much more than the top of his head and hair. It’s a classy and well thought-out approach on Bigelow’s part, keeping the scene focused and serious as opposed to overly schmaltzy or exploitative. We’ve already seen his lifeless and bloodied face on the covers of countless newspapers. What we haven’t seen is how it was done. And that’s what Bigelow is providing, in detail.

Also, with OBL’s face mainly hidden, we can focus more on what’s going on around him during and after the attack, including the emotional reactions of the Navy Seals taking part in it. The actors seen in these scenes, including Parks and Recreation‘s Chris Pratt and Warrior’s Joel Edgerton, do a great job of balancing the relief of completing their given task, — one which will not only satisfy the CIA and the president, but also millions of Americans — with the unavoidable discomfort that one would assume comes after gunning down dozens of people in front of children. Sure, some of the Seals have obligatory “Rah, rah, rah!” moments, but they all seem tinged with that same, “Shouldn’t I feel more satisfied?” feeling that some people still hold years after OBL’s death.

J: First of all, Katherine Bigelow deserves an Oscar. Any intimation that she doesn’t is sexist bullshit. I wasn’t a fan of The Hurt Locker, personally, but I did see the value in telling that particular story, at that particular time. Bigalow isn’t afraid of telling difficult, dark, complicated stories involving difficult, dark, complicated people. She has a lot of guts, particularly as a woman in the Hollywood director’s boys’ club.

One of the things that Bigelow does particularly well in this movie is create tension. She manages, over a 2 hour and a bit time frame, to show adequately how much of a marathon the process of catching bin Laden was, without making it boring. She develops the kind of tension that gets under your skin, that you can’t resolve. But when the mission’s hour comes, when “zero dark thirty” hits, the tension is incredible, palpable. I was on the edge of my seat, even though, of course, I knew what was going to happen!

The finale, the killing of Osama bin Laden, is portrayed as a well-planned, somewhat poorly executed (no pun intended), but nonetheless successful mission. But the look on Chastain’s face when she finds out that it worked and OBL is dead says it all. Her sense of emptiness opens the door to so many important questions about what will happen now that OBL is gone.

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IS IT TOO MUCH TOO SOON?

E: I will be honest with you right now: I was really conflicted about seeing this movie. As much as I thought the story would make for a compelling picture, I was unsure about the timing of it. Considering that Osama was killed under a handful of years ago, there are still many of his supporters out there, some of which could be easily angered by an female American director displaying the death of their leader for the world. I mean, think of what we would do if an al-Qaeda member released a movie about how they got us good with 9/11!

Having now seen the movie, a part of me still wonders if Bigelow could have waited a little longer to make this film. The American/Islamic conflict is far from over, and even though the film isn’t obnoxiously patriotic, it does make Americans out to be the heroes (or  heroines) of the situation. On the flip side of things, Bigelow also criticizes the American government somewhat openly, turning the supposed good guys into not-so-good guys. So, no matter which way you swing it, this film is likely to rub someone, somewhere, the wrong way. But I suppose, OBL’s death did the same thing, and so have countless other truly important political dramas (hey, they only waited four years to make All the President’s Men!).

J:  I have confused feelings about the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, and didn’t find that ZDT helped me to make sense of those feelings. But I wonder whether ZDT could help the U.S. complete a process of grieving about 9/11, heal as a nation, and move forward. I don’t think the movie is overly celebratory or uncritical about some of the complex issues associated with the search for and killing of bin Laden, and it certainly doesn’t fall into the “tragedy porn” category like so many films about 9/11 that have come before it. I think the appropriate questions for that nation to ask concern the process by which they went about searching for and killing bin Laden, what economic, democratic, and human costs they have incurred, and whether it was all worth it to catch and kill one man. After all, Al Qaeda lives on without Osama.

While the film is certainly timely, I wonder if releasing it now, only a year and a half after bin Laden was killed, it isn’t a bit like picking at a barely-healed scab. The skin underneath is still pretty tender, still trying to rebuild itself. It might be best to leave that scab alone for a little while longer.

THE FINAL GRADES

J : Zero Dark Thirty is a must-see if you’re interested in international affairs, the “war on terror,”  human rights and civil liberties, and other things of this nature. It’s an important movie given the strong female lead, played by Hollywood’s hottest anti-“It” girl, and directed by the first woman to win an Oscar for directing. So, go see it!

A-

E: This is a movie that ought to be on your must-see list and not just because it’s an Oscar contender. It’s one of the most controversial films of the past year, not to mention highly well-done.  And of course, the female director/female heroine factor is definitely not lost on us Filles.

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2 responses to “She Said/She Said: Zero Dark Thirty

  1. Pingback: NEVER SEEN IT!: Take Shelter | Cinefilles·

  2. Pingback: NEVER SEEN IT!: Take Shelter | Cinefilles·

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