More noise than signal

Zero Dark Thirty

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

I had rather been looking forward to Zero Dark Thirty, given the tremendous milage Kathryn “Bam Bam” Bigelow extracted from the bomb-disposal shenanigans of The Hurt Locker. There would seem to be a certain thematic consistency in going with The Hunt For Red Osama as her next project, and there’s surely lots of interesting angles to take with the C.I.A.’s attempts to track down the world’s biggest villain?

Hmm. At any rate, Zero Dark Thirty, which as time-based titles go isn’t a patch on Half Past Dead, sees us joining Maya (Jessica Chastain) straight out of spook school, assigned to the group on Obama’s case, largely represented by Dan (Jason Clarke). Seeing as we’re at the height of Bush’s U.S. Imperialism Playground, it’s a mere matter of minutes before we’re waterboarding our first foreigner in a C.I.A. Black Site, which is as good a point as any to bring up what seems to be the prevailing criticism of this film.

It’s been said that Zero Dark Thirty glamorises torture, a claim which has no basis in reality, or more reasonably makes apologies for torture. Certainly Maya and Dan show little hesitation in using “enhanced interrogation techniques”, and there’s no caterwauling soundtrack to enforce a view that this is something despicable. Instead it’s presented in almost documentarian fashion, and left to the viewer to make up your own mind.

Hesitant as I am to agree with Michael Moore, he’s correct in his defence of this issue. It’s left up to you to decide whether the ends justify the means, or the rather more obvious position that torture is inhuman and we shouldn’t be stooping to that level. Especially when the film goes on to make it perfectly clear that the means didn’t get them anywhere close to the ends.

The progress from information obtained for captives under duress soon leads to dead ends, and once the political winds change to steer us away from Abuse Island, it’s made perfectly clear that the breaks in the investigation come from freely volunteered information, common or garden bribery and old fashioned policework.

Maya survives several life-threatening situations in theatres of war before returning to the U.S.A., where the aforementioned not-totally-barbaric methods leads to a suspiciously fortified house in Pakistan that she is convinced contains Osama Bin Laden, and she undertakes to forcefully convince her rather less convinced superiors to raid the place.

It’s presumably not news to you that this eventually goes ahead, and the Special Forces raid on the compound is told in surprisingly great and un-glamourised detail. Which is as good a place as any to bring up my prevailing criticism of this film.

I didn’t go into this film expecting, or even wanting, it to be “exciting”. That’s certainly not the correct treatment for the subject, and I’m glad it does not go down the yee-haw cowboy route. I had not, however, prepared myself for it being quite so boring.

It’s no coincidence that the Bond films are not documentaries, because as it turns out real spy work is pretty mundane. Even torturing people manages to come across as rather dry and matter of fact, and the raid on the compound seems to occur in pretty much real time and drags on so long as to effectively sap any tension that the years-long manhunt might have built, and there wasn’t much of that in the first place.

It’s tough to find too many faults with the general mechanics of the film. Indeed, Jessica Chastain, who’s effectively the only driving force in this film, plays her character very well. It’s just that her character has very little character, and we get little insight as to what might drive her one-track determined pursuit of her theories. Perhaps simply catching the most wanted man on the planet provides its own motive, which is great in reality but less so on celluloid.

I can see that there’s a certain logic in refusing to dramatise the elements of this manhunt, however in the final cut both myself and my buttocks would have appreciated just a little bit of drama to keep up the interest, or at least a little more liberal use of the editing suite. Sitting through some of the minutiae of this investigation is rather plainly not interesting, and there’s very little in the way of character to ameliorate this.

Zero Dark Thirty presents a mature and unsensational take on a delicate subject, and is leagues more admirable than any of the World Trade Center or United Flight 93 treatments yet seen. It’s just a touch to far into the dry, factual side of things to hold much interest over the close to two and two third hours you’ll spend with it.