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Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

The Canadian Girlfriend Experience

Let's get this out of the way: I don't believe the official story of Osama bin Laden's death. In the days following President Obama's announcement of a raid on the 9/11 mastermind's compound, as many contradictions as details came pouring out of the White House--troubling stuff from an administration who'd coasted to electoral victory on tight communication and organization.

In one version, our brave Navy SEALs were caught in a harrowing firefight as they made their way through the building. In another, they sniped a couple of low-level henchmen who could barely grab their guns. By one account, bin Laden used a woman as a human shield in a tense stand-off with soldiers. By another, he was dispatched quickly while peering around a corner. A dramatic photo showed the President and his national security team allegedly watching real-time video of the mission, though CIA director Leon Panetta later revealed that the feed had gone dead as soon as the soldiers entered the building.

The toughest pill to swallow came when people asked, "Where's the body?" Some believe that the whole operation was a sham, and that bin Laden either died years earlier, or was dragged to a CIA black site for harsh interrogation. I have as much reason to believe these theories as the so-called approved accounts--which is to say, no reason at all. Here's the litmus test I used in coming to that conclusion:

If, like me, you were a hard-core liberal during the early 2000s, who thought everything the Bush administration did (especially in prosecuting the War on Terror) was at best nefarious, and at worst fucking evil--would you have accepted the following as W's answer to "Where's the body?"

"We killed Osama bin Laden last night. Men on the ground took photos and sent them to us for verification. We'll never show you those pictures because they are too gruesome for a nation obsessed with CSI, Dexter, and the Saw franchise to stomach. Also, we immediately dumped his corpse into the sea, in keeping with what we're counting on you to believe is a valid interpretation of Islamic tradition. Trust us. We got him."

I'm guessing the answer is "no", as it should be. We've been asked to accept the whole story on faith, much like the apocryphal junior high kid whose super-hot Canadian girlfriend is too busy with her European modeling career to visit the States as much as she'd like to. This is why I tuned out politics almost entirely to focus on something far more believable and significant: the movies.

Hey! What's this? Oh, it's Kathryn Bigelow's "true story of the greatest man-hunt in history", Zero Dark Thirty. So much for realism. Indeed, so much for entertainment.

You won't be surprised to learn that I went into this film with a lot of baggage. I didn't expect Bigelow or screenwriter Mark Boal to change my mind, necessarily, but I'd hoped they'd at least prosecute their story with dignity and a desire to captivate. Instead, they've proven themselves deft propagandists of the highest order: Zero Dark Thirty is so bland and deliberately confusing that becoming the new Official American History of the raid can have been its only purpose.

The filmmakers count on moviegoers' ignorance of everything I opened this review with. It's the only way they can justify introducing Maya (Jessica Chastain), the hard-as-nails CIA analyst who will stop at NOTHING to kill Osama bin Laden. If you spent last summer plumbing The Dark Knight Rises for meaning, it's likely you didn't read anything about Chastain's character being a composite of several people who worked the case for years. Pairing this with an opening title card assuring us that the movie is based on first-hand accounts of people in the know, Bigelow and Boal successfully plant a true American hero in the public consciousness. 

Sadly, she's not very heroic. Maya is a shrill, single-note vengeance machine. I'll give Chastain the benefit of the doubt and assume that most of her unlikability in this film has to do with Bigelow's direction and Boal's awful screenplay. The actress was the highlight of The Help, injecting a wounded-firecracker personality into a movie that was all clichés and melodrama. Here, she's called upon to obsess over killing bin Laden without any stated motivation.

Not once in Zero Dark Thirty's two-and-a-half-hour run-time do we hear about an aunt who died in Tower Two, or a moral code that her dearly departed mother instilled in her growing up. Maya is simply a bloodhound who wants bin Laden because she wants him. Even that might have been acceptable if Boal had included some context for Maya's life: a neglected husband, a kid who doesn't understand that mommy's trying to make the world safer for her to live in. Since the filmmakers have deliberately abandoned realism, couldn't they also have headed in the direction of relatability--or at least believability? No, Maya is always on the clock, cheerily pouring over surveillance footage, diving into manila folders, and popping up to observe torture first-hand.

What's so strange about this cartoon-character protagonist is that she sees her co-workers as cardboard-cut-out foes. One of the few things Bigelow got right in this production was having a hand in hiring a terrific supporting cast. Jason Clarke steals the show as Maya's torture mentor. He's good at his job, but oddly charismatic, down-to-Earth, and conflicted about his line of work. At one point, he decide he's "seen too many naked dudes" and heads to Washington to get into politics. You have no idea how badly I wished the movie had followed him.

Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong also do fine work as CIA higher-ups caught in the untenable position of having to track bin Laden for the better part of a decade, and then switch tactics as political will and facts on the ground shift away from the original mission. There's a very interesting confrontation between Chandler and Chastain in which he says much of the intelligence he's seen indicates that bin Laden either died years earlier (hmmmm...) or had been relegated to figurehead status by a new generation of Al Quaeda who had their own agendas to execute. This nearly short-circuits Maya's programming, compelling her to break the glass ceiling she'd installed in her own mind. She'll get bin Laden, no matter how many ineffectual men she has to push out of her way. And by "get", I mean kill--not interrogate, or put on trial, or trot out on the world stage as an example of America's moral superiority and unparalleled detective work.

From my vantage point, Maya's co-workers have every reason to ignore her; not because of gender, but because she's unpleasant, accusatory, and inappropriate at every turn. During a meeting with Panetta (James Gandolfini), in which her team presents an aerial photo of the bin Laden compound, the CIA director asks who she is. "I'm the motherfucker that found it," she says defiantly, as if she'd been treated like one of Calvin Candie's table servants until that point. This is but one example of a dozen in which Maya brings a big, swingin' dick to a eunuch convention.

Let's skip the rest of the movie and get to the "good part". While Zero Dark Thirty is packed with side-missions, back-room deals, and more important-sounding but ultimately inconsequential names than you'll hear in a C-SPAN role call, the level of excitement rarely reaches that of a sub-par episode of 24. By the way, for as much crap as that series got for its depiction of the War on Terror, it was leagues more intelligent, morally complex, and gripping in execution than Bigelow's dead devotional.

But, yes, onto the blood-lust. Maya tracks bin Laden's courrier to a house in Pakistan. She convinces her superiors to send in the SEALs and take out the target. We meet a couple of the guys, played by Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt--two actors I normally like, but who are terribly miscast here. Or perhaps just poorly written. There's a bit too much "bro-ness" in their portrayals of guys prepping for and going on a dangerous mission. As much as I despised Act of Valor, that movie at least provided a template for an American warrior's solemnity--and these guys don't fit.

I shouldn't be too surprised, I guess, because the film's climactic mission has all the subtlety and coherence of a multi-player video game. The SEALs descend on the compound in "stealth" helicopters, which I'm meant to believe are incredibly quiet--yet which I can hear in the theatre's sound mix as giant, noisy machines that would surely wake up a quiet neighborhood in the middle of the night. It's not until the explosions and gunfire that we see lights turn on next door. Anyway...

The action is so confusing that at one point I thought there was a third helicopter. People are dropped off in various places and scurry about in different parts of a compound whose scale and floor plan alternate between that of a crappy two-story apartment and Fort Knox--all while its residents are either still sleeping or slooooowly walking to their gun caches.

Like all Middle Easterners in this movie, bin Laden and his henchmen are portrayed as murderous idiots. Instead of taking up a tactical position, one stands in front of a door with a machine gun. Another falls for a SEAL calling out his name in the darkness: BAM!--shot while peering around a corner; the same happens with UBL, too. Later, as the "good guys" sweep the place for hard drives and other terror-plotting evidence, the soldier who brings in bin Laden's body bag stops in the living room to look morosely at a husband and wife who'd been gunned down. It's a weird beat, seeing as this elite killer has probably seen way worse things in his career of murdering people.

The movie ends with Maya having confirmed "her" trophy kill and sitting in the back of an empty cargo plane. The pilot asks her where she wants to go, and we get the oh-so-original hold on Chastain's face as she realizes it's not just a matter of physical destination, man--it's, like, a spiritual question, too.


Again, if we'd been given an actual character to care about here, maybe the scene would have worked. As it stands, Maya is a program who's just been rendered obsolete, a Terminator who's succeeded in killing John Connor and must now wait for its eight-hundred-year battery to die out.

It's odd that Bigelow and Boal choose to end their film on this note, as they've left a very conspicuous piece of business laying on a slab in a nearby hangar. They never address the disposal of bin Laden's body. We end with the end of Maya, as if that means something. To borrow a quote from Real Genius, Zero Dark Thirty is all science and no philosophy, a revenge picture that sees the act of vengeance as the ultimate victory--no explanation, introspection, or cleanup necessary. We, the audience, are not meant to remember such trivialities as the burial at sea; the bizarre sight of spontaneous, patriotic mobs popping up in American cities on the announcement of bin Laden's death; or the odd details that the administration couldn't seem to get right in sharing the "truth" about their greatest military success.

From a technical standpoint, the film is hard to beat. It's bland, and will remind you of the dozen TV shows and movies that the creators steal from liberally, but it looks great and feels authentic. But so did The Three Stooges remake. And I don't see that one on anybody's "Best of" lists, or gaining credence as an important motion picture. Whether as puppeteers or puppets, Bigelow and Boal have convinced lots of people that Zero Dark Thirty is good. It scares me to think of how many more will believe it's true.