It’s safe to say that the movie that caused the biggest stir last year is Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty which chronicles the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. While some criticize the movie for having an agenda, others praise Bigelow’s cinematic vision and Jessica Chastain’s performance as Maya, the CIA agent who was behind the operation (her real name, of course, is undisclosed). Chris Hanna and Radina Papukchieva discuss the film’s merits, as well as its failings, and the reasons behind both.
Why it’s controversial:
The main beef that critics of the movie seem to have with it is that Zero Dark Thirty shows torture as a successful tactic for getting information from detainees. The first 10-15 min of the film involve questioning which can be considered quite discreet when compared to what was actually happening at Abu-Ghraib, for example. Glenn Greenwald of the U.K. paper The Guardian summons this opinion of the film by saying that “by most accounts, [Zero Dark Thirty] glorifies torture by claiming – falsely – that waterboarding and other forms of coercive interrogation tactics were crucial, even indispensable in finding bin Laden.” Another issue some take with the film is that it ultimately shows Americans as heroic and it fails to depict all the damage that they caused on the way to capturing bin Laden. (Radina Papukchieva)
Why it’s not controversial:
Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal met with White House officials and did a fair amount of research to make the film. While this can point out further controversy about the making of Zero Dark Thirty, it also gives audiences an inside look to how bin Laden was traced down and captured. After the navy S.E.A.L team found him and killed him, people had questions and wanted to know how it happened. Furthermore, the film focuses solely on the manhunt for bin Laden, hence, on the people involved in finding them and for whom this was a job. The audience isn’t being spoon-fed morals about the evil-ness of the man and what he did to America, rather we are directly thrown in with a team of agents for whom it is a job to find him, not a duty. Also, I agree that the torture scenes are sugarcoated, and that what was happening was much worse, but I disagree that Bigelow was trying to show torture in a good light. Nobody in the film questions the tactic and whether it’s good or bad; there is even a moment in the film in which the characters watch Obama declaring that he is against torture, to which nobody reacts. Silence doesn’t necessarily mean that this is morally OK. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t glorify torture any more than any other action movie does (Casino Royale, Reservoir Dogs, etc.). The problem is that while other movies are treated as fiction, this one is treated as a sort of fake documentary because it’s based in reality. Ultimately, I believe that a movie means whatever we want it to mean; our own conceptions are projected back to us. Personally, I don’t believe that Zero Dark Thirty has an agenda and I think that Bigelow and Boal did their best with the material they had. On the other hand, it’s hard not to debate Bigelow’s “depiction is not endorsement” way of defending the film. (RP)
The film as a film:
When regarded purely for its cinematic merits, Zero Dark Thirty delivers pulse-quickening action, great visuals, and even better acting (Jessica Chastain is the one to beat this year). The movie was shot by Greig Fraser whose credits include Killing Them Softly and Snow White and the Huntsman. Although I knew the outcome, I still left the theatre with a throbbing pain in my muscles from all the tension that I had to go through, physically. When the movie ended, everyone was silent. There was no applause, and not even talking. The last time I experienced this was when I saw Black Swan. The movie was a purely physical experience. We aren’t made to feel sympathy for anyone, neither for the Americans nor for bin Laden and his family, or the detainees that are questioned in order to get to him. In this sense, Zero Dark Thirty is a slow burn. The only emotional scene comes at the very end, when Jessica Chastain’s character, Maya, gets on an aircraft after she has identified bin Laden’s body, and begins to cry. It’s the movie’s sole attempt at a touching moment, and we are left to discuss what the shedded tears mean. It is our cue to discuss the events surrounding bin Laden’s capture, and the meaning(lessness) of the war on terrorism. (RP)
Political or not (but it is), Zero Dark Thirty is a cinematic accomplishment in that the storytelling is taut and tense. The old adage “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” perfectly sums up the film: we all know how it ends, but the way director Kathryn Bigelow brings us there (aided by really amazing performances from the entire cast, but most notably Jessica Chastain, Kyle Chandler and Jason Clarke) is reason enough to line up.
Some scenes were incredibly difficult to watch; the controversy over the scenes involving torture tactics is warranted. As Radina pointed out, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal did their research: while there must have been embellishments and dramatizations of actual events for real-life to be more cinematically accessible in the film, Zero Dark Thirty is the must-see movie of the year. It’s poignant and timely. Most of all, it’s incredibly brave filmmaking which tackles the most controversial of all controversies. (Chris Hanna)
By Chris Hanna and Radina Papukchieva
Twitter @Chris_Hanna and @Papukchieva