I really don’t like Kathryn Bigelow. (As a director, that is. I don’t know her personally. I’m sure she’s nice.) This is perhaps not a standard view to take, because I read some of the reviews about Zero Dark Thirty and people raved about it, and, frankly, that shocks me.
As an artist, the one thing that you need above everything else is a point of view. Everything else is just technique. If you don’t have an opinion about what you’re creating, then why are you doing it? I don’t think Kathryn Bigelow has an opinion about anything that happens in her film. What struck me the most about Zero Dark Thirty is that is is completely hollow. It’s a movie about a lot of really hefty issues, especially if you go beyond the obvious ’Oh my gosh, bin Laden!’, but it says absolutely nothing about any of them.
Torture for intelligence? Ehhh, just kind of happens. This is a shame, because it’s a story about torture told from the point of view of the torturers, and that could be really interesting, but no, going there is too risque. Or something. And then things change and they’re not allowed to torture people anymore and ehhhh, it just kind of happens. No consequences for having done it. No consequences for not being able to do it any more because hey we’ve still got all the information we need through, uh, ways unspecified. This is especially frustrating in light of the media buzz the film received about its graphic portrayal of torture. To me, the point is not that torture is portrayed explicitly, its that torture is portrayed explicitly FOR NO BLOODY REASON AT ALL. If I have to watch that, leave me with something to think about other than, “Oh, that was kind of awkward.’ Use it to make a point, or don’t waste my time.
Speaking of wasting time, let’s move on to another issue Zero Dark Thirty completely fails to bother addressing. How about the clash of cultures created by Americans in the Middle East? There are a lot of ways to play with this. Cultural oppression by foreign overlords, cultural discovery in a foreign land, integration by familiarity or two cultures that can’t come together because of the weight of history and resentment between them. No, not really. Those things have nothing to do with strong women in unconventional roles, so let’s not bother.
Zero Dark Thirty seems like a visual representation of a fact sheet. There is no character development, no real tension, and a heck of a lot of being told that a person has qualities that never actually appear in the film. I’m thrilled that the last thirty minutes of the film are an accurate representation of the actual raid that actually killed the guy** but I don’t actually care about any of it. A helicopter crashes? Oh well, moving on. Pakistani forces on their way? Guess we’ll hurry up in the most nonchalant way we possibly can. Only four minutes to destroy everything and get the heck out? Oh, ok then, guess we’ll cope. The one time where I saw any sort of an attempt at political commentary was when one of the SWAT team had a really awkward moment of moral uncertainty about killing women and children (this is not the guy’s first mission, folks) and then goes on with his day.
The main character, Maya, was written as an aggregate of all the ladies involved in the effort to catch bin Laden, and it shows. She feels hollow, built of a collection of characteristics, rather than a personality, and it seems like the reason she cares about any of the issues she faces is because that’s what’s required of a strong woman in a leadership role. Like the film itself, everything she says and does happens only because it’s in the script. We know she’s intelligent, driven, worth listening to, because someone else describes her as such.
Frankly, Maya strikes me as overconfident, tunnel-focused, and badly behaved. I’d be very nervous about taking the advice of someone who was so sure they were right, regardless of anything anyone else said. And somewhere between the first time she writes the number of days it’s been in dry erase on the window and the hundredth, someone should have taken the damned marker away and given her a time-out, and possibly a spanking. I understand what KB was trying to do here, but I feel it would have been more interesting if she had found different ways to do that, because in reality, the other people in the office would have long since either reacted to what she was doing, or stopped paying attention. In fact, it’s that same stubborn adherence to a tactic that obviously isn’t doing what she wants it to that makes me nervous of trusting her judgement in any sort of leadership capacity.
At one point, she makes some comment about her familiarity with the Middle East, which made me laugh out loud because the sole representation of Iraq thus far, and I’m talking three quarters of the way through the film, is one shot where we hear the muezzin, and one shot where a prisoner is fed hummus and olives. Other than that it’s all talk.
This is a shame, because the colours, textures, sounds of the set can be such a fantastic tool for the storyteller. Communication occurs through all five senses, and while filmmaking is limited to sight and sound, this should mean that these two senses are worked even harder.*
Instead, the camera work is sloppy, probably meant to give the impression of gritty realism instead of looking like the camera op phoned the whole shoot in the day after a really good party. Lots of lingering close-ups focus on objects in a way that screams, ’Pay attention because I’m going to be important later,’ but then they never are. Oddly timed choppy editing completely throws out any tension that KB tries to build.
My favourite scene in the movie is the moment after the informant’s car pulls up and everyone realizes that something is wrong but no one knows what to do about it and then the car blows up.*** Unfortunately, the surprise of this moment is completely ruined by the preceding five minutes of set-up full of those same lingering poignant shots, and you aren’t sitting there wondering what the informant is going to say and how that’s going to play out, you’re waiting for everything to go boom, because obviously this isn’t going to end well. Damn it, if it’s a surprise, I don’t WANT to know it’s coming.
My least favourite scene is a two minute rant by the department head to everyone on the intelligence team, about how they need to work harder because they’ve only caught x number of bad guys. It’s an awkward, awkward bit of exposition, designed to tell the audience what everyone in that room already knows, intelligence being their freaking job, and consequently to give the impression that the head guy has completely lost his marbles, had a nervous breakdown, and probably needs a vacation somewhere with no sharp objects, padded walls and lots of friendly supervision. This is the best (worst?) example of the ’tell, don’t show’ syndrome that the movie suffers from throughout.
After watching this movie, the impression that I came away with is that KB sees herself as a woman on a mission, with something to prove. Unfortunately, she has no idea what that mission is, or what she’s proving. There are a lot of parallels between this and the internal storyline of Zero Dark Thirty. Maya is equally a woman on a mission, with something to prove, and thats about as far as it goes. The old maxim runs, “Write what you know,” and my pet theory is that KB has, consciously or not, made in Zero Dark Thirty a movie about herself. This, to me, is really rather sad, because the whole project is such a hollow, lifeless thing devoid of any joy or creativity, and that is not a happy place to be.
In every aspect, Zero Dark Thirty is a lazy, lazy film, and a complete waste of the audience’s time. As a storyteller, its lack of any sort of a point of view actively offends me. If it were an honest effort to say something that failed because of flawed execution, I would be much more forgiving, even if I cared for it as little as I do now. However, its problem lies in the complete lack of the kind of vision a director needs in order to be called a director, and in a fundamental seeming unwillingness to take the time to delve into any aspect of the characters, the plot, the soul of the story, and that is unforgivable. If any actor walked into an audition so unprepared, not only would they receive a right royal chewing out for it, they would not be getting back into that audition room for quite some time. Heck, if a plumber showed up that unprepared, even the least knowledgeable house owner would be showing him the door in very short order and warning friends an d family never to hire the guy. This film should not only never have made the oscars, it is frankly a waste of resources that it was ever made at all.****
Want to read more? Stay tuned for something completely different! In honour of easter, I’m going to be musing on the spirituality of storytelling. I said spirituality, not religion, so don’t be scared, y’all. But really, what are we doing if not trying, in our own small way, to explain the why of the human condition? Intrigued? Eeeeexcellent….