February 2013

Arts & Letters

Day of the jackpot

By Luke Davies

Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

The wrong film invariably wins the Oscar for Best Picture, which is in fact the award for the marketing campaign that most successfully targets the ageing and conservative 6000 eligible voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Kathryn Bigelow’s overrated The Hurt Locker, which won in 2010, a year that included the brilliant South African science fiction parable District 9 and the Coen brothers’ small masterpiece A Serious Man, a movie which becomes more miraculously beautiful on each subsequent viewing, is not a bad film, but it’s an old-fashioned one. If you look back through the decades, you’ll find it’s generally these that win best picture Oscars.

The Hurt Locker famously beat Avatar (directed, coincidentally, by Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron), which, though goofily sumptuous and technologically extraordinary, was at its eco-lefty heart an old-timey space-Western, full of bombast and clichéd characters. On the one hand, it was good to see a small, intelligent film beat a large, obvious one. On the other, this particular small, intelligent film looked as if its model had last been updated in the 1950s.

That’s not a problem in itself. “War’s dirty little secret is that some men love it,” Bigelow has said, speaking of her interest in making The Hurt Locker, and the film succeeds as an exploration of that theme. The problem, rather, is the praise The Hurt Locker garnered as being some kind of overdue and definitive statement about the American experience in Iraq. Much as Bigelow’s films don’t preach (blessed relief), neither do they interrogate the larger paradoxes of war in the way that more complex films like Syriana at least attempt. Stripped to its essence, The Hurt Locker is a tight, unsurprising drama about a renegade. John Wayne played this character in dozens of films. Jeremy Renner, as The Hurt Locker’s devil-may-care bomb-disposal expert, does things his way, and Wayne’s way, army protocol be damned.

At a certain level Americans are uneasy about their military efforts overseas, which seems to have left them prone to jumping the gun in deeming certain films to be significant moral statements of their time. In reality, a great film like Apocalypse Now comes along only once in a very long while.

Bigelow’s new film is Zero Dark Thirty, about the decade-long American hunt for Osama bin Laden. It comes with a great deal of buzz and baggage: what does it say about torture? Is it pro-Obama, or pro–Cheney and Bush? Did the CIA give the filmmakers classified information?

The questions would matter more if the film were better. They matter to some extent, since the film has been treated so seriously, and may yet win Oscars. Bigelow (and screenwriter Mark Boal, who also wrote The Hurt Locker) shows us torture being used to extract information that may or may not lead, later in the film, to greater certitude regarding bin Laden’s whereabouts. She presents these scenes matter-of-factly, as if they carry no ethical or political weight. It’s her right – this is what happened, she seems to be saying, and who likes a didactic film? – but it feels like a cop-out, as if she has ushered the bull into the china shop and stepped back outside.

“There was a lot of white noise after 9/11,” says one character, explaining how an important piece of intelligence went unnoticed for years. “Things got lost in the shuffle.” There’s white noise, too, in the film – the narrative complexity is mind-numbing in the first half – and around it, in the extraordinary array of commentary it has incited. (There is also a subliminal moral line that American audiences may not even notice: the American flag makes it into the background of quite a number of the ‘big’ emotional scenes. The screenplay’s working title was ‘For God and Country’.)

Bigelow and Boal initially developed a script about the failed effort to find the world’s most wanted man in Tora Bora in Afghanistan in late 2001. Shooting was about to begin when bin Laden was killed. You can sense the sudden change of direction, the mad scramble for a new story, in the film that remains.

Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a CIA analyst who has a hunch: if she can find bin Laden’s couriers, she’ll eventually find him. Her search, of course, is stymied; she must deal with bureaucratic obstinacy, lack of will and shifts in policy focus, not least of which is the shift away from “enhanced interrogation techniques”. (“Abu Ghraib and Gitmo fucked us,” the CIA’s head of counterterrorism says in the film. “We’ve got senators jumping out of our asses.”) All this serves, as the movie jumps forward a few years at a time, to increase Maya’s obsessiveness. She’s a haunted woman, searching for a phantom.

Jason Clarke as Daniel, a kind of CIA special operations handyman, is the most interesting presence in Zero Dark Thirty. In the first half of the film he’s a hands-on interrogator, a hirsute loose cannon watched by intelligence-gatherer Maya in a dank basement room in a “black site” in Islamabad. “Can I be honest with you?” he says to a detainee. “I’m bad fuckin’ news. I’m not your friend. I’m not gonna help you. I’m gonna break you.” Later, shaved of beard and wearing tailored slacks and a striped shirt rather than camouflage gear, he’s back in Washington, the handyman turned bureaucrat.

Clarke is beautifully understated, his big physical presence withheld and coiled. It’s a small role, but there are no really big roles in the film – other than the singular presence of Maya, in a world peopled almost exclusively by men. Jessica Chastain was light and ditzy in The Help and radiant and otherworldly in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Here, though, there’s a problem with pitch. Maya largely comes across as shrill, as if Chastain has a problem getting a handle on her. We get that Maya’s obsessed, and driven, and brittle, and that all this is supposed to be the dramatic centre of the film. But when Chastain tries to go big she struggles.

Maya screams at her bosses, and it doesn’t ring true, either as drama or as part of the verisimilitude the filmmakers lay such claim to. She speaks out of turn at a high-level meeting, again the only woman in a room full of men, discussing the probability that bin Laden is in the Abbottabad complex that she has identified. “And who are you?” asks CIA head Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), turning to the interloper. “I’m the motherfucker that found this place,” Maya answers, chin jutting forward, referring to the aerial surveillance photos spread on the table. It’s hard to buy, too, that Maya writes on her boss’s cubicle window, with a marker pen, the number of days her intelligence has not been acted upon, day after day for more than a hundred days, and that day after day her boss sighs and does nothing.

These small points eat away at the suspension of disbelief. Zero Dark Thirty works best when it is understated; when it moves steadily through CIA procedural grunt-work it is, for all its density, terrifically engrossing and brings to mind great old Sydney Lumet films like Serpico and Prince of the City. When it’s not being understated, we either have Maya ranting at everyone above her, or bosses ranting at everyone below them. “I want targets!” screams one red-faced boss, pounding the table in case we don’t get it. “Do your fucking job. Bring me people to kill.” You get the feeling the scene is meant to be punchy; it comes across as obvious, overdone and histrionic.

Seriousness of intent is no substitute for hardiness of construction, and, like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty seems a little more intelligent, audacious and interesting than it actually is. And yet the final 30 minutes, which depict the actual Navy SEAL assault on the bin Laden complex, are a stunning, gripping sequence, a hallucinatory poem shot mostly in a lurid green simulation of the SEALs’ view through night-vision goggles. (The cinematography is by Australian Greig Fraser.)

Here, nothing is overdone, and the filmmakers withhold from us anything even remotely resembling a Hollywood “bin Laden realises he’s a goner” moment. “Got a possible jackpot,” radios the SEAL team’s leader (Joel Edgerton). “Roger that,” says a disembodied voice. “Possible jackpot.” Down on the second floor a soldier is frantically loading hard drives and files into a canvas bag. “Yo, what’s up?” he says to another who has just arrived. “I shot the third-floor guy,” says the second soldier, looking for an instant bewildered, spaced-out. “Whyn’t you get to work?” says the first soldier, gruffly. “Grab a bag.”

This final section feels “authentic”. Bigelow has called the film “part-documentary”, but therein lies the problem. The great unknown is the film’s relationship to the true story. If you were told none of it were true, you’d think you’d just watched an odd and fairly mediocre film. What’s thrilling about Zero Dark Thirty is thrilling at a voyeuristic level: we want to know how bin Laden was located and killed.

Two congressional hearings and a number of CIA operatives have stated that torture methods did not help locate bin Laden. Midway through the film, Maya and two colleagues are in a meeting. They stop for a moment to watch Barack Obama on a TV screen, giving his first interview after his 2008 election win. “I’ve said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture,” the President says. “And I’m going to make sure that we don’t torture.” The camera moves in close on Maya. Barely blinking, her look says, “Yeah, right. I know otherwise.”

In her introduction to Mark Boal’s screenplay, sent as promotional material to Academy members, Bigelow writes: “I felt … we could perhaps spark a conversation about the shadowy lives of those in the intelligence community, the price they’ve paid for their work, and the murky deeds that were done over this dark decade in the name of national security. That feels to me like a film worth making and a conversation worth having, now more than ever.”

The film participates in that conversation, but in a dip-its-toe-in-the-water sense only. In telling the tale of a woman who knows only certitude, and whose certitude never wavers, it is non-committal, and strangely apolitical. The real question Zero Dark Thirty never asks is, “What if they were wrong, and it wasn’t bin Laden?” Would that have made the operation a lesser or greater category of “murky deed”? Is America’s “regular moral stature” lessened if it says, in effect, “We’re going to launch an attack on a sovereign nation we’re not at war with, and as the culmination of that attack we will perform a summary execution without trial”? Thank God and country, then, that the boogie man was real.”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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