Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Mitchell

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Jessica Chastain. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

Zero Dark Thirty spans ten years in following a CIA agent’s pursuit of Osama bin Laden from September 11, 2001 until the time of his death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALS in 2011. The agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), is young, and her whole career has been spent only in this pursuit. Using intelligence gathered in a multitude of ways, including torture of prisoners with ties to Al Qaeda, Maya posits that the key to finding bin Laden may be a courier named Abu Ahmed. Singularly focused on the task of identifying Ahmed, she disregards the skepticism of colleagues, surviving terrorist attacks as she draws closer to her target.

The story is kind of confusing at first, as we’re not really sure who Maya is or what her job is. As events slowly lead her toward what we know is the historical end of bin Laden’s life, we’re swept along with Maya’s obsession. Her frustrations become ours, and her cathartic payoff when it’s all over is also ours. That’s about as much character development as we get: Maya is a secret agent, so not much is known about her by the actors and producers of the film beyond the reported events. The film is presented the same way, as a series of events leading to a known end.

This is the first role I’ve seen Chastain in, and she does a really good job. She’s kind of a cross between Jodie Foster and Julianne Moore, giving a kind of smart spunkiness with just a hint of vulnerable sweetness. When she gets mad in this movie, it is a thing to behold, and one can see how one young agent like her could get just the right few people on her side so that she could reach her goal. Although there are performances I liked better in 2012, I’m not going to have a problem with her winning the Academy Award for best actress. Although this film is carried by its plot, that plot rests on one character, and she carries it well.

Despite Chastain’s excellent performance and the excitement of the final act, it’s difficult to call this a very good movie. I was interested and engaged from beginning to end, and of course I cared about (and had investment in) the character’s success, but I’m not sure how successful is art that has as simple a singular purpose as telling us what happened. It makes a good story; I just don’t know if it makes for more than a pretty-good movie.

7/10
73/100

16 Responses to “Zero Dark Thirty (2012)”


  1. Reid

    I thought I wrote a review, but I guess not.

    68/100

    When she gets mad in this movie, it is a thing to behold, and one can see how one young agent like her could get just the right few people on her side so that she could reach her goal.

    I liked these scenes, and I used to like them a lot more in film. But I view this Hollywood trope with some ambivalence now–primarily because it glamorizes this type of behavior, but it’s the type of behavior that one shouldn’t copy. (Michelle Rhee is like a real life version of Maya, but I believe she’s an example of how NOT to operate in an organization–despite many admirable qualities and legitimate ideas.)

    Having said that, if it weren’t for these scenes and Chastain’s charisma overall, I would have liked this film a lot less. As you alluded to, her character carries us along in the story. If her character isn’t compelling and interesting, the film fails, in my opinion.

    I was interested and engaged from beginning to end, and of course I cared about (and had investment in) the character’s success, but I’m not sure how successful is art that has as simple a singular purpose as telling us what happened.

    I don’t think it’s a great film. However, if I were to make a case for it, I’d say that the effect the film had on you was an accomplishment. Consider the complexity and the timespan of the events. The film had to do a lot of compressing and do so in a way that entertained viewers. The film does that fairly well, although I would say as an action/thriller it’s barely above middling.

    The other issue is the extent to which the film distorts and misleads viewers about the actual event. Since this is a true story and the film seems to want to be as accurate as possible (versus using it as a springboard for a pure entertainment movie), I think this is a valid question. I’m not sure about the extent of the film’s accuracy, but my sense is that is really simplifies the story and probably distorts the actual events. Even though I was mostly entertained, I would say that the film doesn’t work in terms of documentary way. Middling action/thriller and a middling documentary–but solid, if not excellent, technical filmmaking.

    On another note, I think you mentioned that you didn’t think the film supported or encouraged torture. I’d be interested in hearing you expand on that. To me, it seems to validate torture, as torture does lead to getting to important information. (They get information from the first person when they bring him out and give him food, but the chief interrogator, during that conversation, also threatens to go back to torturing him as well. Other individuals who provide information about the main courier also seemed to be tortured in the film.)

  2. Mitchell

    I never said torture doesn’t work or that I haven’t benefited from it. I just didn’t get the message from the film that torture is an acceptable way to get that information or benefit. It’s presented pretty factually, if you ask me: “Here’s what we did, and here’s the info we got from it. Decide for yourself if it’s justified.”

  3. Reid

    It’s presented pretty factually, if you ask me: “Here’s what we did, and here’s the info we got from it. Decide for yourself if it’s justified.”

    If by “factually,” you mean not blatantly advocating torture as a valid means of information gathering, then I would agree with you. But would you agree that the film clearly shows that torture did work in getting important information with finding OBL? Some people would strongly dispute this–or more broadly, that torture is actually effective. In my opinion, this film portrays torture as effective and important, in the hunting and killing of OBL.

  4. Mitchell

    I’m not sure torture is an effective means either. I didn’t get the sense that the writers were claiming it’s that effective either. I got the sense that it worked in these cases. Did you get the idea that driving around from street to street in pursuit of a cell phone signal was a very effective way to find someone? I didn’t. It worked in this case.

    As for a moral position, the only thing the film presents in favor of torture is that it worked. That’s a weak argument and it only addresses one aspect of the argument against. My guess is that if it were trying to persuade us, it might have made those scenes even less uncomfortable to watch, don’t you? I already had the sense that we were getting a tame version, and it was still not something I was comfortable with.

  5. Reid

    I didn’t get the sense that the writers were claiming it’s that effective either. I got the sense that it worked in these cases. Did you get the idea that driving around from street to street in pursuit of a cell phone signal was a very effective way to find someone? I didn’t. It worked in this case.

    Well, I’m surprised that you’d make this comparison, and I would be surprised if viewers interpret torture in the same way–i.e., it worked for that specific situation, but it’s highly unlikely it would work in other situations. I think most viewers know that driving around from street to street to find someone is an act of desperation, highly inefficient and it’s success depended on luck. Would viewers feel the same about torture? What would make them feel that way?

    As for a moral position, the only thing the film presents in favor of torture is that it worked. That’s a weak argument…

    It may be a weak argument for you, but do you think it would be a weak argument for a lot of people?

    People who have strongly opposed torture have been arguing that it is not effective or reliable; they have argued that this is not how you effectively gather critical information. Would you agree that the film at least challenges this idea? I think it does, and it’s a blow to those people making this argument.

    If there is consensus that torture does in fact work, at least some of the times, then I don’t think military personnel or politicians can categorically reject its use. And nevermind what I think–they will not categorically reject it’s use. My impression is that people dispute whether torture does actually work, though, but I think this film argues against that claim.

  6. Mitchell

    People who have strongly opposed torture have been arguing that it is not effective or reliable; they have argued that this is not how you effectively gather critical information. Would you agree that the film at least challenges this idea? I think it does, and it’s a blow to those people making this argument.

    I suppose it challenges this idea if people who think it doesn’t work think it NEVER works. The reason people have argued that this is not how you effectively gather critical information is that its efficacy is the ground pro-torture people have staked as the heart of their argument. I’m pretty sure anti-torture people are putting efficacy no higher than second on the list of reasons not to torture detainees. I might not be able to convince someone that it’s morally repugnant, but I might be able to convince so-and-so that it doesn’t work as well as so-and-so thinks it does.

    I’m pretty firmly in the no-torture camp, and I didn’t think that the film was at all trying to convince me of torture’s virtues. So if it was, it didn’t do a very good job.

  7. Reid

    I might not be able to convince someone that it’s morally repugnant,….

    I don’t think you would have trouble convincing anyone that torture is morally repugnant–just as you wouldn’t have trouble convincing people that many aspects of war are morally repugnant as well. The issue is, is it so morally repugnant that we should NEVER use it? I think that’s the question people are struggling with.

    Of course, if using torture isn’t reliable or effective, or if there are alternative methods that are equally effective, then that would end the debate. The film portrays torture as being effective and important in gathering critical information–so I think that validates it’s use, at least in some circumstances, for many people.

    I’m pretty firmly in the no-torture camp, and I didn’t think that the film was at all trying to convince me of torture’s virtues. So if it was, it didn’t do a very good job.

    Right, but I think that’s because you believe that torture should never be used–regardless of its effectiveness or the consequences of not getting the information (e.g., you wouldn’t use torture even if it could prevent New York from being nuked.) I agree that viewers who feel the same wouldn’t be convinced by the film, but my guess is that this is a small minority of viewers.

  8. Mitchell

    The film portrays torture as being effective and important in gathering critical information–so I think that validates it’s use, at least in some circumstances, for many people.

    So you think that portraying torture that results in useful information at all is a film-maker’s attempt at justifying its use? As I said in my first response: it’s a pretty matter-of-fact portrayal. It seems to me that just representing facts as they may have been told to whoever wrote this is not encouraging or condoning torture; it’s letting the viewer decide for him- or herself.

    Why couldn’t the argument also be made that showing the miserable stuff the detainees are put through in the name of our government is an argument against torture by those same film-makers? Or that ten years is hardly indicative of an effective method?

    Right, but I think that’s because you believe that torture should never be used–regardless of its effectiveness or the consequences of not getting the information (e.g., you wouldn’t use torture even if it could prevent New York from being nuked.) I agree that viewers who feel the same wouldn’t be convinced by the film, but my guess is that this is a small minority of viewers.

    Let’s not confuse whether the film is effective at condoning torture and whether it attempted to condone torture. The fact that I was not swayed doesn’t mean it wasn’t trying to sway me. Since I have strong feelings about the issue, wouldn’t I be more sensitive to a film’s trying to convince me of something even while I was being less likely to be convinced? You frequently accuse Grace and Penny of being hypersensitive to feminist issues because they are feminist. In the same way, as someone who is against torture, I would be more aware of a pro-torture message. And on the contrary, I thought it was a reasonable portrayal that didn’t take sides.

  9. Reid

    In the same way, as someone who is against torture, I would be more aware of a pro-torture message. And on the contrary, I thought it was a reasonable portrayal that didn’t take sides.

    But the effectiveness of torture is irrelevant to you, is it not? In other words, a film proving or showing torture to be effective doesn’t constitute an argument for or against its use. I don’t agree with this. I think if you depict water-boarding and beating people to actually work, then the film is make a case for its use. If it’s effective and critical for gathering intelligence–if there are no other equally effective information gathering techniques–then I think the question, for many people, becomes when is using torture appropriate. You can see how categorically banning torture–from a government standpoint–would be very difficult if what I just described is true, right?

    And my sense is that people who oppose torture would strongly disagree with this description. They would argue that it isn’t effective and in fact often leads to bad information; that there are alternate techniques that are much more reliable and effective.

    My personal sense is that neither the film’s depiction of torture and it’s efficacy nor the anti-torture people are accurate. Some degree of fear (the threat of torture) or discomfort (not allowing sleep for long periods; using bright lights and noise, etc.) and maybe even pain seems pretty critical to getting information. I don’t know if this constitutes torture or not, but it’s not clear cut. The film doesn’t really show this type of nuance regarding torture, and it makes it seem like blatant torture was critical to getting the information. (There’s an Atlantic article about the CIA interrogators and how they operated.)

  10. Mitchell

    If the mere success of torture is enough to constitute advocating or condoning it, then yes. I cry uncle. You can’t argue with the fact that the movie presents torture as working, so if that’s all that’s required, you win. The movie DOES condone torture.

    But Fast Times at Ridgemont High presented a high-school girl having an abortion. And The Karate Kid showed Mr. Miyagi praying to Buddha. Do these films advocate for abortion rights or Buddhism?

    Or, for a less extreme example, what about Dead Man Walking? Does it condone or condemn the death penalty? I say it does neither. And I say Zero Dark Thirty is just telling a story, not taking a position on torture except to say that it happened in this case.

  11. Arlyn

    Reid: Some people would strongly dispute this–or more broadly, that torture is actually effective.

    How could a film portray torture and at the same time not condone it? I’m taking the side that this film does not condone torture. “Some people” will take from this what they bring to it. Those who are pro-torture may see that it does advocate it. Others, the opposite.

    Mitchell: My guess is that if it were trying to persuade us, it might have made those scenes even less uncomfortable to watch, don’t you? I already had the sense that we were getting a tame version, and it was still not something I was comfortable with.

    Agree. We were spared the gruesome scenes that could have made some audience members faint like in some other recent movie (a fellow audience member fainted during The Impossible). Bigelow is good at making the audience decide for themselves if torture works. And as I mentioned previously, the viewer will take what they bring to it before even seeing it.

    Instead of torture, I question Bigelow and her access to the CIA and facts. It was released after the elections but how much of this is related to propaganda? Film is probably the most powerful means of getting a message to the masses in terms of this. Serve and remain faithful to your country. It could be a way to validate why our military men and women have been overseas for so long.

    Reid: The film does that fairly well, although I would say as an action/thriller it’s barely above middling.

    I didn’t think this movie was that great either. Hurt Locker exceeded my expectations but this movie as a thriller was just okay.

    64/100

  12. Reid

    Mitchell,

    But Fast Times at Ridgemont High presented a high-school girl having an abortion. And The Karate Kid showed Mr. Miyagi praying to Buddha. Do these films advocate for abortion rights or Buddhism?

    Or, for a less extreme example, what about Dead Man Walking? Does it condone or condemn the death penalty?

    Again, I don’t find these arguments compelling. The film doesn’t merely show torture, but it shows that torture actually worked and played a critical role in finding Bin Laden. According to the film, the CIA agents identify Bin Laden’s main courier (or at least get very important leads). They don’t get this information, they probably don’t find Bin Laden.

    I think anti-torture individuals would dispute this. I have a feeling they would dispute the depiction of techinques and the role they played in gathering information. In the film, Maya identifies the courier partly because several people mention his name. If I’m not mistaken, we see scenes of people getting beaten when she mentions this. This suggests those beating helped get that information. This contradicts torture opponents who say things like beating people up are not effective and reliable.

    For those who think the efficacy and reliability is contentious and central–I think they would see the film as pro-torture. For those who think efficacy and reliability are not the central issue, I think they wouldn’t see the film as pro-torture. I’m in the former, you’re in the latter. Mark Bowden is another person who agrees with you. Check out this Atlantic article. Even though I don’t quite agree with Bowden, I think he does a good job of laying out the complexities in the issue. Bowden recently wrote a book about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, so he discusses the veracity of the film (which he likes).

    Arlyn,

    Those who are pro-torture may see that it does advocate it.

    My sense is that the anti-torture people see the film this way (and they’re mad about this).

    Hurt Locker exceeded my expectations but this movie as a thriller was just okay.

    Agreed.

  13. Mitchell

    I’m not going to click the link because I’m just not that interested in this topic. I’m interested in it because it seems to have interested you; that’s about as much work as I’m going to put into it.

    And you have returned to the argument of how the audience receives the picture, which may have been the point of this discussion all along. When you first asked the question last Saturday night at your place, I thought we were talking about the film-makers’ intent, not the audience’s takeaway. If I’d been clear on that all along we could have saved ourselves the effort. My emphasis all along has been that there’s just not enough there to assert that the film-makers are trying to convince the audience of some kind of policy position. But now we’re on how pro-torture and anti-torture people interpret what’s there.

  14. Reid

    I’m not going to click the link because I’m just not that interested in this topic. I’m interested in it because it seems to have interested you; that’s about as much work as I’m going to put into it.

    That’s totally understandable. I just thought it was an interesting article–one that actually supported your position a lot more than mine. What I liked is that Bowden touches upon the complexity of the issue–important nuances that I think the film glosses over and misleads viewers in the process.

    My emphasis all along has been that there’s just not enough there to assert that the film-makers are trying to convince the audience of some kind of policy position.

    For what it’s worth, I don’t think Bigelow actually intended to promote torture, and I think she believes that the film does not do this. I don’t really doubt this.

    But now we’re on how pro-torture and anti-torture people interpret what’s there.

    Well, I’m looking at how you and I interpret the film–and how we think moviegoers will interpret the film–with regard to torture. Basically, I think we interpret the film and answer this last question differently because we don’t agree on what the critical issue of torture is. From what I gather, the issue is strictly moral for you–is it right or wrong. (By the way, I do NOT think the film is saying torture is morally acceptable. It’s more matter-of-fact and neutral on that point.) I’m more concerned with the depiction of torture and its effectiveness. I feel that way because if we’re talking about the film’s impact on the larger society, I think many people will accept torture–no matter how awful–if it is effective and used to prevent a serious security threat. I think governments and political leaders will not be able to categorically ban torture–if it is effective. And this film communicates that torture is effective at gathering information. (Bowden disputes this claim, by the way, and he gives a good argument, but I don’t agree with him.) This is one of the main reasons I think anti-torture people are so upset by the film. And I think they’re right to feel upset. This film does not help their cause in my opinion.

  15. Mitchell

    Well shoot. Then we’ve been agreeing all along.

  16. Reid

    I think this discussion is a good example of the difficulty of effective communication online. Then again, we might have had trouble communicating in a face-to-face conversation. It would depend on how quickly we could figure out that we were thinking of “a film promoting torture” in different ways.

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