Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

An “historical” drama about events whose morality is questionable and whose accuracy is contentious.

I generally avoid movies about war, and I’m averse to films that have even the possibility of being jingoistic, particularly about events that are questionable in their morality and historical accuracy. “Zero Dark Thirty” falls so no-net easily within the overlap in the Venn diagram of these concerns, that it makes the film, for me, particularly perverse viewing.

Director Kathryn Bigelow (whose previous Academy Award-winning film was another military drama, “The Hurt Locker”, which I avoided watching for similar reasons) and writer Mark Boal argued that the film offers no judgement or moralising on the subject of the American government’s policies and actions in response to 9/11. While this argument was specifically in response to discussions of the film’s portrayal of waterboarding and other torture methods in the search for Osama Bin Laden, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume the film makers felt this way about their movie overall. And that may be one of the most disingenuous things about the whole thing.

“Zero Dark Thirty” purports to be an “historical” drama about events whose morality is questionable and whose accuracy is contentious. The lone-gunman-against-the-system is such a Hollywood trope, and here it feels just gross (even if protagonist Maya is played by the distractingly attractive Jessica Chastain). Maya isn’t just a composite of real-life CIA operatives, she’s an amalgam of American pop-cultural hero fantasies (including, interestingly, some traditionally more masculine archetypes – she’s so single-minded in her mission that she’s neither distracted nor rescued by any love interest).

The film may not overtly moralise on the methods employed by the government, but it also doesn’t question the overall mission itself. By staying out of the way of the “events” that led to an “event”, what “Zero Dark Thirty” ultimately endorses is that any and possibly all of these things actually happened. Bigelow and Boal’s sophisticated artistic choices are perhaps the most effective and sinister elements in this endorsement: by leaning away from Jack Ryan and towards Jason Bourne, the film’s patriotic fanfare is played not by a marching band but by a slick theatrical production posing as a garage band. The signifiers may be different, but the signified remains.