MARION DREYFUSS: HUNTING BIN LADEN…ON ZERO DARK THIRTY
Ultimately, though it is an inevitable Academy Award nominee, I found ZD30 suspenseful, well-complected — but unsatisfying in parts, and as a whole. Others will probably disagree with my assessment.
Even in midweek, at a midnight showing, the queue stretched all the length of the huge AMC in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. This is a movie that was pre-sold in a major way — not by ads, either.
It is not only the liberties taken with the objective truth of the event, the culmination of a decade-plus of intensive CIA and allied effort, Bigelow and her associates purportedly spent considerable time closeted with the oh-so-busy President getting secrets that ought not, in many people’s view, to have been shared. Operational coverts have no business being bandied about in an entertainment as easily viewed by national enemies as by the neighbor’s kid. Our SEALs and our national security are abridged and narrowed by such disclosures. All for a buck or a billion.
It is also not only the fictionalized so-called ‘torture,’ which is scarcely even in the ballpark of real exertions visited upon our servicemen in the field when taken prisoner by jihadi and related Middle easterners or Mexican drug cartelniks. As this stuff goes, it was not, to this reviewer, even reasonable or realistic. The intensive enhanced interrogations looked uncomfortable, to be sure, but torture? No. Even so, the interrogator, a handsome, bearded guy (Jason Clarke) who scarcely fit the image of the kinds of guys who get put into this gig, was somewhat…genial…while intimidating, occasionally bequeathing drink and food along with his threats and demands.
Little inaccuracies, here and there, marred the whole.
Watching from not far away, Maya, the female CIA operative intel officer (interesting Jessica Chastain, in a career-making role) stood awkwardly with an unlikely cascade of strawberry blonde hair and somber expression. (Originally cast: With Rooney Mara, The Girl Who… franchise, in the key role, the movie would have been immensely different if she had accepted.) Though she is murmured about as a “killer from Langley,” Maya looks upset and uncomfortable on site at each ‘enhanced’ interrogation — this is wrong. She is telegraphing her own feelings as an actress to the movie audience; she is not playing the ‘killer’ who can take whatever is dished out in the highly charged field of black ops in Pakistan, Afghanistan and similar wastes.
Having spent some time in both the American Air Force and the Israeli, I think her speech tone and texture sounded about right, but her posture and reactions semaphored wrong. The expectable gaping (a beautiful woman! In “torture” scenes! And the prisoner/interrogatee [French actor Reda Kateb] did not seem to take note?) and service sexism that exists in all such government anti-terrorism outposts was entirely absent, which struck a continuing false note. Maybe writer Mark Boal, whose film this is, was not sensitive to this obvious issue, but its absence through the 2-hr film clanged. Uh uh.
Even a total professional, as Maya evidently is, would get hit on in a 99%-male environment. Correctly, she encounters skepticism along the way, dedicated and insightful and hard-working as she is. As James Gandolfini as the CIA chief says to an underling who wants to trust Maya’s judgment because “she’s smart,” in the face of widespread skepticism, “Hey, we’re all smart.”
The ‘story’ of the long and often frustrating hunt for UBL is so well-drilled into the audience that much of the work storytellers have to impart was pre-accomplished if you read the papers or have a TV or net access. The film begins in voiceover headspace, total black-screen pierced by audio of voices, cries and soothing 9/11 operators to incinerating WTC victims.
The gadgetry and spy tradecraft was about right, and the SEAL teams, seen relaxing at base as well as in the suspense-tautened scenes of the actual attack, are well-schooled, if beefier and more grizzled than the Channing Tatum-models we envision.
We don’t see anything of Maya’s private life — she evidently has none. She is single-minded about her goal. Bigelow must have kissed the stars for finding this bon-bon of a gift to her movie; most such narratives are devoid of females of such importance to the story. Maya doesn’t, like Angelina or ScarJo, kick ass. She kicks major IT. As she doesn’t answer another female intel operative, another beauteous op, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), in the ill-fated Islamabad Marriott, who asks if she has any friends, we gather Maya has none. Homeland”s intense Carrie Mathison comes to mind, but here, minus the bi-polarity. Explosions and bomb effects in Zero Dark are done very well, indeed.
Though the film shows dead ends and many snatched meetings with bigs in DC and along the decade-long trajectory of the narrative — including a welcome James Gandolfini as top general, to amused chuckles in the audience to see Tony Soprano suddenly elevated to such a high government post — the film is a tale of eventual success. The last half-hour is extremely well-done, though almost entirely in night-vision dim and green-light specialty goggles. The Angel of Death choppers are top of the line, but even as “quiet” as they could have been, how could they not alert the entire Abbottabad neighborhood? Which, of course, they did.
All that being said, and as deft as Bigelow and her tremendous crew clearly are, and despite the smattering of applause by the late-night SRO audience, I felt unsatisfied with the lacunae and drifts from actuality that I know were displayed. And I’m nobody.
We know the story in outline. We see the striving for telltales and leads come to naught. But the audience is all at the edge for the successful terminus, which gives the film more impetus than a regular entertainment offers. The conclusion, in this case, matters.
Is it worth a come-see? Assuredly. By the fanatic long lines even late at night, this is the pic to see. And probably 90% went out satisfied. But is it all that? Not so sure. Bigelow earns her stripes, The Hurt Locker won Best Pic of 2008, and merited it. Moreover, probably few directors could have landed this baby as well as she. But somehow I think the hype is selling this sizzle more than the steak.
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