As the elite SEAL Team Six deploys with stylish, go big or go home Call of Duty tactical precision on the Abbottabad, Pakistan fortress of solitude that has been sheltering terrorist Osama bin Laden in the closing half hour of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, a sneakily subtle and altogether unnecessary braggart exchange between SEALs Patrick (Joel Edgerton) and Justin (Christ Pratt) ensues. The brief friendly quibble of one-upmanship over their kill count in the midst of stacking dozens of Muslim bodies proves to be most disturbing, as it not only disregards the utmost importance of the mission (for we are reminded throughout the treacherous 157 minutes of the film) but contradicts director Bigelow’s previous portrayal of twenty-first century American military veterans in 2009′s The Hurt Locker—one where in lieu of never firmly plastering them as conventional heroes—showcases their empathy for the locals. It’s precisely this moral and political ambiguity that makes Zero Dark Thirty the wholly reprehensible shit show it has become.
Perhaps it is best for me to step forward and state the obvious right off the bat: Politics have no place in film. Plain and simple. And when politics do, unfortunately, infiltrate the art form we have all come to cherish and defend at all costs, the art aspect is therefor subsequently unrecoverable and an inordinate amount of frenetic activity takes place. Such activity has given rhetoric a new home and a soapbox for those out there who do not deserve to ever have one in the first place. Even prior to the nationwide release of Bigelow’s highly-anticipated Zero Dark Thirty, politic pundits and partisan mouthpieces have chimed in; causing a rippling effect of hysterical commotion regarding the re-election of Barack Obama, allegations of improper access to classified information, and the widely circulated (and much exhausting) allegations of pro-torture stance in the United States Armed Forces. And mind you, with the Academy Awards shortly on its way, the discussion (or shouting match) has only amplified to a deafening volume and the remote control has been temporarily hidden underneath the sofa cushion. Both sides of the political spectrum wants you, the viewer—and everyone else—to know they’re paying close attention to what is being projected on the silver screen. It’s a frightening notion; knowing that art is no longer in the artist’s hands, but stored away in a governmental filing cabinet somewhere, to be examined when the timing is right.
In our contemporary society tragedy is no longer an art form but a form of history. As a result dramatists no longer seem able to write tragedies without ripping (literally) pages from newspapers and headlines. But film has always had a way of slyly melding history for the screen without insensitivity or compromise. In one such rare case which a dramatic work satisfies equally as a moral act and a work of art is the iconic 1955 Alain Resnais short film Night and Fog (French: Nuit et brouillard). A threnody of sorts to the tragedy of six million, Night and Fog is highly selective, emotionally relentless, historically scrupulous, and ulimtately (if the word seems not outrageous here) even beautiful. Kathryn Bigelow’s big budget action thriller Zero Dark Thirty is not a beautiful film in the least. Nor does one necessarily ask that it be. Nevertheless, since one can assume the moral/political importance and immense interest in the film, one cannot simply pass on by the aesthetic questions. Whatever Zero Dark Thirty is as a moral/political event, it is certainly not filmmaking of the highest order.
If we were to aim our critical barrels at Zero Dark Thirty, it would surely have to start—fittingly—with the very opening scenes. The entirety of the opening sequence of Zero Dark Thirty is downright bad filmmaking; so deplorably offensive in its use of indecipherable language, cut and paste police procedural 101 rhetoric, and clogging of undigested exposition. So much so that the aforementioned banality reduces the much discussed torture scenes to a classroom PowerPoint presentation and not the shocking realism of wartime brutality it set out to be. There are, to be sure, a number of extremely powerful moments within these controversial torture scenes—particularly those involving the ruthless officer Dan (Jason Clarke) as he methodically attempts to break detainee Ammar during the humiliating interrogations. Yet, the fact remains that one of the principal and recurrent, and almost, by nature, undramatic reasons for characters—such as Clarke’s Dan—confronting each other in a scene, is to simply inform each other of something. Hundreds of names, facts, statistics, reports of conversations, photographs, sources, items of current news have been perpetually pumped into the dialogue. If the viewing of Zero Dark Thirty is tremendously moving to you, it is because of the weight of its subject matter, not because of its style or dramatic composition—both of which are extremely conventional.
I would imagine that a film like Zero Dark Thirty could have been highly satisfying on the screen. But the theatrical effectiveness depends on the director possessing an unusual kind of moral and aesthetic tact. A good production of Zero Dark Thirty must be ingeniously stylized. And yet in summoning the resources of news, history, and—to a greater extent—politics, with its bent toward the realistic rather than the ritualistic, the director must beware of undermining the power of the sources (which lies in its factual authority, so to speak, its concrete historical authenticity). While director Kathryn Bigelow has done her best to use the sensitive source material and historical evidence to attempt crafting fine art on screen, it is certainly far from commendable. Bigelow knows all about “the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man,” and all of that painstaking work that went into it capturing him. But like many of her previous films (notably Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker) Zero Dark Thirty lacks tonicity, vigor and directness of address. It’s far too cautious, somehow, overburdened and synthetic. It doesn’t go to the end of the idea or of the emotion which inspires them either, which all great art must do.
Bigelow’s recent Hollywood superstar success is owed not to her unfettered willpower and dedication to the arts or her craft, but to the literature. Most literary of all is Bigelow’s formalism. While formalism itself is not literature, per say, but to appropriate a complex and specific narrative in order to deliberately obscure it—to write an abstract text on top of it—as it were, is a very literary procedure indeed. Yes, there is, in fact, believe it or not, a story (going by the tradition of cinema) in Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. And it’s the story of the top secret decade long manhunt for Osama bin Laden and Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative’s desperate and wracked obsessiveness dedication to her governmental occupation. But Zero Dark Thirty is so calculating in its design that, at any given moment, it really isn’t about anything at all. At any given moment it is a formal composition; and it is to this end that individual scenes are shaped so obliquely, the time sequence scrambled, and dialogue kept to a minimum, barring the jargon and stacks of disclosed information.
But it’s not so much the controversial torture scenes, partisanship politics, obtuse (borderline masturbatory) military jargon, or even self-aggrandizing posturing of virtually everyone involved in the production of the film that bothered me. No, it was, rather, the short attention span of the filmmakers/producers. Osama bin Laden’s death happened just a little over a year ago, which raises the question of artistic merit. Couldn’t the filmmakers have waited until releasing a film on the event? What constitutes genuine filmmaking and not a reproduction of news? What we are seeing in Zero Dark Thirty is clearly current events; my thirteen-year-old sister discussed bin Laden’s death in her social studies class and my grandparents probably still have that day’s newspaper lying around somewhere in their ramshackle apartment. How much more current can it get than that? It borders on the ridiculous. Zero Dark Thirty is a film that makes director Paul Greengrass look like a patron saint of patience for waiting a mere five years to release his fictional account of the eponymous September 11th hijacked airlines in United 93.
Going beyond the technical execution of the film, I’m questioning screenwriter Mark Boal’s artistic integrity—did he start penning the script the day after the news broke that bin Laden had been assassinated? It’s outright ridiculous to an absurd degree, with absolutely zero talent or courage to create something on your own terms. The grotesque comparisons of Kathryn Bigelow to German film director and provocateur Leni Riefenstahl are unfound, by the way. In fact, the mere idea that there are “critical thinking” people in this world that have attempted to make an accurate comparison of the two is laughable. After all, Riefenstahl, despite her affiliation with the German Nazi Party, was an artist and visionary. A detached, single-minded revenge film veiled in self-importance and studio manufactured relevance for the Fox News crowd. Edit it down to a half hour and you’ve got yourself filler before Fox & Friends is on the air. Save your money, skip Zero Dark Thirty—you’re better off doing a quick Google search, reading archived articles or, hell, a Wikipedia entry instead. It’s a lot more fun, too.