(Prairie is a colleague of mine on New York Film Critics Online).
ZERO DARK THIRTY
If there is any entity out there more intent than the US government on choreographing – either in advance or retroactively – the outcome of world events, it’s Hollywood. One need only witness the procession of post-Vietnam Hollywood movies staging a do-over, and winning that lost war.
Ditto director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, a Mark Boal scripted revenge thriller cloaked as docudrama, or perhaps even the other way around. And postulating that the target assassination of a single man, Osama Bin Laden, brings effective closure to whatever is bugging the Middle East about this country. In effect, a novel sort of mandatory Hollywood ending that, if impeded, will crush anything in its way.
Zero Dark Thirty revisits presumed events leading up to the CIA orchestrated murder of Bin Laden in May 2011 in Pakistan. And still to this day ensconced in multiple layers of secrecy that sparked Congressional controversy against the filmmaker herself. Who is suspected of receiving collaborative classified CIA information from the Democratic administration, about the assault operation.
And yet another entry into the ‘one side to every story’ school of moviemaking and Simple Simon Says movie criticism, Zero Dark Thirty dramatizes events told solely from the self-congratulatory CIA point of view. A questionable approach that would never pass muster as journalism – but termed by Bigelow as journalistic filmmaking, apparently gets an emphatic pass. And a spy thriller category that currently includes Argo and Skyfall. But the big difference with the latter film, is that it never pretends to be other than fiction.
Jessica Chastain stars as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, a workaholic CIA agent whom we’ve been informed preemptively in the press as being based on a real woman. Maya has her own ideas about where Bin Laden is hiding, theories which are initially dismissed by her predominantly male colleagues. And not without somewhat of a denigrating attitude toward female hunches.
But Maya’s persistence eventually nudges them into taking her seriously, and even though there is not absolute certainty about Bin Laden’s actual presence in the targeted compound. So the assault is orchestrated anyway, during which a number of the residents are summarily executed and children terrorized.
And the fact that the mission trespassing in another country could have been in error with lots of victims anyway, is never addressed. Nor is the fact that most such successful ventures are accomplished not through any brilliant powers of deduction but rather bribery, every suggested – and there was quite a multi-million dollar tidy sum in this case.
In any case, the supposed necessity of shrouding this drama in utter secrecy lets Bigelow nicely off the hook. No need to probe what’s left in question, such as exactly how the shadowy figure of Bin Laden himself expired. And what gripes terrorists harbor against the United States in the first place. Or who is Maya, really. Which lends to her vague character the generic implication, of just another feminist trying to assert herself in a man’s world.
Even her CIA torturer buddy played by Jason Clarke, gets a better back story. He may relish brutalizing and sexually humiliating prisoners, but the guy loves the lab monkeys he shares his ice cream cones with. And is distraught with grief after they’re euthanized.
Which brings this CIA simulated snuff movie back full circle to that Hollywood happy ending in question. So has more psychological than tactical revenge concerning a single man concluded the war on terror, or for that matter US war in the Middle East in general? Maya’s unhappiness at the end is clearly a calculated bid for the filmmakers to have it both ways.