Zero Dark Thirty avoided becoming a “we got him!” movie by instead becoming a “SHE got him!” movie. But that doesn’t make it a good, or a bad, movie.
In fact, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t really either. It’s not a bad movie by any means – it’s very well made, features perfectly fine performances from almost all of its cast, and is exceptionally well written – but it’s not a particularly good movie, either. It exists in some strange, indefinable place in between.
I was going to avoid this movie entirely, because it outwardly appeared to be a film that relies upon the strength of the writer/director team’s past film, The Hurt Locker, as well as the subject matter, a particular point of American pride, to win awards. It seemed like dreadfully exploitative filmmaking to me, and that irked me to the point that I was going to skip it. I was assured by a friend, however, that this was not the case and that I should see it. Within the first minute of the movie, I feared my thoughts had been correct, and was met with a strong urge to stand up and walk right out of the theater. The first minute of the film is a black slate, with only the white text “September 11th, 2001” appearing on screen for five seconds before vanishing. The focus is the audio – actual 911 calls from citizens trapped in the towers.
Clearly meant to get the audience into a certain mindset, a certain grave feeling in order to make the manhunt that the film centers upon more personal, I’m not sure this was the best way to begin the film. But more on that in a minute.
The film itself is the story specifically of CIA agent Maya, whose entire life outside of high school has been spent gathering intel on al-Qaeda for the CIA. She is transferred to a CIA contingent in Pakistan, where fellow agent Dan is a torturer. There has been much controversy regarding these torture scenes – but again, more on that in a minute.
A bit of information gleaned from the torture is the identity of a courier for al-Qaeda, Abu Ahmed, and his connections to several key al-Qaeda members. From there, Maya begins to track the courier down in the hopes of being led straight to her target.
Now, about the torture and the 9/11 calls. I had issues with a film using these devices – things that actually happened, there’s no denying – in order to stir audience emotions. It felt exploitative and disrespectful to the human lives at the center of the brutal acts. But what ultimately absolves Zero Dark Thirty of blame for this practice is that, rather than being emotionally charged, it’s completely and wholly apathetic. It feels less like a dramatization and far more like a report of the events. There’s a sort of sterility here that makes it clear the film neither condemns, nor condones, torture. The 9/11 calls are ultimately contextualized as well, providing a sort of timer for the CIA teams as they work toward their goal and other terrorist attacks occur. There’s a reason, and it’s not necessarily emotional – it’s due journalistic diligence.
And that, I think, is the problem I have with Zero Dark Thirty. This film is less a film than a piece of journalism, a reporting of events as they happened. The film takes no stances, the film sends no messages. It condemns nobody, and praises nobody. It is cold and sterile throughout, even as those close to Maya begin to get killed during the manhunt. No judgment, no exploration of the morality of various actions taken to find Osama bin Laden – just alleged fact, presented in journalistic fashion.
Is that inherently bad? Well, no – not necessarily. But I believe that films should stand for more. Film is an art form, after all – I do not think it is the domain of film to report events. It is the domain of film to stir audiences, to make them feel. It is the domain of film to tell riveting stories in a way that will make the audience undergo an emotional experience. Zero Dark Thirty does none of these things. It feels like a History Channel documentary minus the voiceover.
I’ve said in the past that the way I feel walking out of a film is the ultimate indicator of the film’s quality. If a film suffers under the microscope of extensive logic, but I felt elated and excited exiting the film, it’s still a great film. If a film is spectacular under the microscope of filmic criticism, but left me feeling somewhat empty and disappointing, it’s not a good film. Zero Dark Thirty is the only film I can remember having no opinion of as I walked out of the theater. It wasn’t forgettable, but I had no emotional response to the film. This is a bad sign.
I could point to things the film does really well – such as the clear indicators of when a terrorist attack is about to be shown, all of which are preceded by white text with the date and location and slowly building music, a conceit that places the audience in the minds of the CIA operatives: knowing an attack is about to happen but being completely in the dark as to exactly where, when, and how, and being completely powerless to stop it – but ultimately I do not really know what Bigelow and Boal were trying to say with this film. It’s a film without a cause, a film without a message. A film that wants to say nothing, I feel, is a film that has no reason to exist.
It’s not a bad film. But it’s not a good one, either.