Friday, January 11, 2013

History of Violence: ZERO DARK THIRTY

Zero Dark Thirty is a mercilessly suspenseful thriller, a truthy drama that’s powerfully absorbing as it moves to a foregone conclusion. It is recent events turned into instant ambiguous myth, history rendered cinematic while the ink’s still wet. The story electrically told has intense feelings within. Telling of the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, especially when starting by playing a mix of static and audio from emergency responders on 9/11 over a black screen, can kick up a desire for revenge. But this is not a movie in which a swooping, heroic camera with broad, patriotic blasts of triumphalism executes a bad guy. Much like Alan J. Pakula and William Goldman’s handling of the then-fresh Watergate scandal in their terrific 1976 film All the President’s Men, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal play out their procedural through the eyes of the professional people who gathered and sorted inconclusive intelligence, chased down tantalizing leads to dead ends, and sweated out difficult decisions every step of the way.

These are professional people and we are allowed access to their seemingly insurmountable tasks. Detainees are painfully tortured for information that is at best tangentially helpful. Informants meet deadly ends. Bureaucratic shake-ups force shifting strategies. Our guide through it all is a tenacious agent played by Jessica Chastain. She, like Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, her closest cinematic relation, is powered by a steely determination to see this investigation through to the end. She guides, prods, and cajoles her coworkers to push further, to simply get something done, even when the exact nature of the something is very much hidden, unknowable in the murk. An officemate in the CIA’s Pakistan office played by Jennifer Ehle asks Chastain how her needle-in-the-haystack operation is coming along. This is a film in which the needle is always clear, the haystack always in the way, and the argument for much of the time is how to analyze a handful of strands. The film is nearly ten years of setbacks and dead ends that are suddenly energized by unexpected breakthroughs, becoming a stop-and-go rush to a long awaited finish line.

Bigelow makes this into the highest-stakes workplace drama imaginable. Violence is used sparingly in the film, occurring suddenly in the field, away from the halls of power where characters try to make sense of it. The supporting cast is rich with great actors doing quickly sketched, jargon-filled, vivid character work. Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Harold Perrineau, Mark Duplass, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, and James Gandolfini move around the world of the film, some suits, some military, some Navy SEALs. They each have a job to do and set about doing not a mere patriotic duty, but what they feel is best for their own careers and the lives of their coworkers. A life-and-death mystery plays out simultaneously secretly in cubicles of agencies and embassies and in clandestine spycraft, as well as on a world stage. The latter is kept carefully in the background, through glimpses of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech and Obama’s anti-torture comments on 60 Minutes seen only on TVs pushed into the farthest sides of shot compositions, yet their images are still in sharp focus. Year after year, the big picture, the ultimate goal, remains clear; it’s the foreground, the immediate, that grows fuzzy.

Through the accumulation of detail and interplay between interior and exterior spaces, danger grows and recedes. Through tense focus pulls and quietly layered compositions, the film draws tension out of mundane and brings the mundane into moments of tension. So much is instantly felt when a gust of wind allows a pair of black boots to be glimpsed underneath the hem of a burqa. All is not as it seems. Much like the expertly terrifying sequences following a combat zone bomb squad in her previous film The Hurt Locker (also scripted by Boal), Bigelow creates sequences in which little details add up to sustained nerve jangling suspense. In the opening scene – our protagonist’s first day in the field – she’s instructed to bring a pitcher of water to an interrogator preparing to waterboard a detainee. She draws it from slush in a scuffed blue cooler in the corner of the grimy cell. Torture is shown as a process, a technique, horrifying and casual. Later, there’s a scene in which a maybe suspicious car slowly makes its way into a sandy forward operating base, each puff of its dusty exhaust pipe cause for (hopefully false) alarm.

It all builds, of course, to the raid on Bin Laden’s discovered compound, a mission the details of which are both secret and well publicized. It plays out here in a suspenseful set piece expertly crosscut between grubby night-vision, smoothly dim digital photography, and Chastain sitting before a bank of communications devices back at the base. The special effects are persuasive, William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor’s editing and Greig Fraser’s cinematography are crisp and confident, but this is more than mere edge-of-the-seat climactic action momentum. Though it’s certainly that too, an earned sequence of thrills that come partially from exhilarating clarity at last rising up. Rather than building to a bloody, fascistic blast of propagandistic violence, Bigelow plays the violent acts as almost perfunctory. Osama is barely glimpsed. The soldiers maintain utmost professionalism. The aftermath is relief at a job well done mixed with mournful exhaustion.

This is a self-reflexive and sometimes critical look at events that could have been glorified, that could have easily been cheap thrills on a way to a flag-waving triumphant climax. Instead, Bigelow is interested in creating deep thrills, rooted in character, painted in ambiguity and subtlety. This isn’t a movie that’s about a country’s proxies getting righteous revenge. This is a movie about watching a professional, capable agent getting the job done the best way she knows how, with the best information she can get at any given time. It’s ultimately exciting and moving not because of sentimental human-interest material. No, this film is too crisp and focused for detours like that. What makes this film exciting and moving is how sharp and subtle the character at its core becomes. Chastain creates a matter-of-fact, driven hero, continually underestimated, taking ambiguous steps to symbolic victory. This is not a film that tells us how to think about recent history, but rather, through the eyes of a memorable character, shows it in a convincing, exciting tick tock procedural of uncommonly involving suspense and complexity. 

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