Reviewing Zero Dark Thirty – An Oscar Nominated Film By Academy Award Winner Kathryn Bigelow

SUMMARY: Zero Dark Thirty alienates its audience with its metallic, distant and self-important style. You end up admiring it more than loving it

Each and every moment in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ (ZDT) is crafted with monumental finesse and precision to an extent that we feel as though we are reading the blueprint of the Twin Towers. The modus operandi in the various procedures and proceedings followed by CIA is so realistically and truthfully depicted that we wonder whether ZDT was planned as a movie for public viewing or as a project in a seminar meant for theorists and scholars from different backgrounds. In one word, if the movie has to be defined, I shall say that ZDT is ‘metallic’, just like those fighter helicopters that were used to raid Osama’s sanctuary, all hard and impregnable for most of the duration. It is an achievement for Bigelow to make such an important work, yet ZDT is more to be admired as a solid work of craftsmanship and less to be loved as a superbly intense film.

Nearly every person on planet earth knows about 9/11 (a hyperbole, yet not overly exaggerated) and its repercussions on the world politics. Almost every guy or gal would know Osama Bin Laden (not a hyperbole actually) with a majority aware of his actions in the past, and a few minority getting acquainted with the name thanks to Facebook memes of President Obama and Osama. Majority of the Americans and Pakistanis would know about the torture cases in Abu Ghraib, with gruesome and sickening pictures leaked online acting as explicit proof of certain American soldiers’ execrable treatment of Iraqi detainees. And with Osama’s death in 2011 headlining news channels across the world, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal knew that this was THE subject of their next film. So with massive preparations and research, the duo gave birth to ‘ZDT’, a synthesis of an independent tough female director’s vision with the meticulously detailed effort of an analytical male scriptwriter’s mind.

Boal and Bigelow’s ZDT is led not by a tough-nut rugged man but by a strong and determined woman named Maya who is played brilliantly by chameleonic actress Jessica Chastain. Maya is on her first and her most important mission as a freshly recruited CIA officer: to capture Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 bombings and the leader of the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization. During her eight-year long mission, she witnesses the various ‘stick approach’ (read torture) methods used by her superiors to extract information from detainees in Pakistan, interviews a number of Muslim men, most of whom are prisoners, reviews the videotapes to get new findings, encounters and narrowly escapes attacks and bombings, loses some of her colleagues and gains respect from her superiors and most importantly gets a vital piece of information that finally leads to Zero Dark Thirty.

The opening moment of the film with a blank screen and audio echoing from the surround sound speakers is haunting especially when it ends with a female helpline operation saying the words ‘Oh my god’. The visuals begin with an intense interrogation scene between Dan, a CIA officer accompanied by three people and Ammar, a detainee held at a black site. Only later do we realize that the masked person standing behind Dan on whom the camera frequently pans is actually Maya. The scene then continues with a water-boarding torture inflicted on Ammar with Maya filling the jug with water for Dan to pour it on the struggling Ammar’s covered face. The camera work during the scene (and the rest of the film) is stellar, with shot-reverse shots at same camera height/level is used during the initial interrogation and the same technique but with the camera kept at a lower height emphasizing Dan’s upper-hand and from at higher height at Ammar to show his helplessness is used after the water-boarding scene, with shots of Maya’s reaction inserted at intervals. During the second interrogation, instead of cutting, the camera moves back and forth from Dan to Ammar to increase the pace of the questioning.

When the plot leaves the interrogation, the pace drastically reduces especially during the office talk, which reminded me of Bourne Series, where we didn’t bother lending our ears to the little office-room scenes that gave some background information only because office-room talk is usually pretty banal. And Zero Dark Thirty is pretty heavy on jargon and theory, as the great film critic Roger Ebert pointed out. The entire first half after the torture sequence pretty much moves on in a self-important manner where characters speak plenty of ‘important matters’ to each other without involving the audience even to a little degree. The constant fade-outs to introduce new segments are to blame for this. This kind of editing used repeatedly drops our curiosity and interest for what’s to come next. The failure here reminded me of why Social Network succeeded so well in raising tension – David Fincher, Social Network’s director never dropped the m***********g pace and instead let it build and build further.

The second half has better moments and is more a film than the first. Maya’s dialog “I’m the m**********r that found the place!” got quite some response from the audience apart from Dan’s “If you lie, I hurt you…” in the first half. A smart thing for Bigelow to do after Osama’s hideout was discovered was to keep Maya absent from the film for a while and instead only showing her hand writing the number of days since the discovery on a glass wall with a marker to show her frustration at CIA’s dormant response. While the actual operation of capturing Osama Bin Laden, whose outcome everyone knows, is quite subdued compared to how I had visualized the encounter after I heard it in the news, it is the resolution and final shot especially which drive home the point.

I do not think the film is one looking for stars. I find it impossible to give it stars. Can’t say I enjoyed it much but I couldn’t take my eyes of it.

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