Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Zero"ing in on a "Dark" Decade

     According to conventional wisdom, the two things that you should never discuss in polite company are politics and religion.  These also happen to be the two topics at the very heart of Zero Dark Thirty, director Katherine Bigelow and screen writer Mark Boal's controversial follow-up to Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker.  Not that The Movie Frog is afraid to be impolite (nope, I'm a pretty ruthlessly sarcastic amphibian), but I do have a lot of readers in the Middle East and other areas of the world where some of the the subjects in this film might be a little touchy.
     So, to get started, let me just say that this Movie Frog graduated from a high school in which my graduating class had members from all over the world, over fifty nations of origin represented.  By the time I was a teenager I had friends of all ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds.  I feel that growing up in this sort of environment was good for me because it taught me to appreciate mankind for the great variety that makes it up.  I cover English language cinema exhaustively, but I also try to cover a strong sampling of films  from all over the world, with an eye towards what they teach us about cultures and artistic traditions that are, well, somewhat foreign to most Americans.
     That being said, Zero Dark Thirty is very much about the United States and the American psyche in the decade following 9/11 and can only be analyzed from that standpoint.  Maya (Jessica Chastain)'s journey through the film is symbolic of the journey that we all took in many ways, to both our shame and honor.  Little in life is truly black and white, and there is darkness in even the purest of hearts.  If my analysis of this film proves offensive to anyone, I apologize in advance.  My understanding of certain situations may well be skewed or limited by my cultural perspective, as may yours.  Seeking to grasp this fact and trying to gain insight into OTHER perspectives is the only way that we can ever truly make the world a better, safer place to live in.  After all, we are ALL only human.
     Bigelow and Boal are carving out an impressive niche for their collaborations, producing two of the most profound artistic explorations of America's modern foreign policy in any medium.  Far from cheap propaganda, their work focuses instead upon individuals dropped into the middle of horrific situations and the effects wrought upon their psyches over time.  As with The Hurt Locker, I didn't entirely "get" Zero Dark Thirty until the very end, when I finally saw these effects clearly in a simple, silent scene.  From the film's inception when we are presented with a jumble of 9/11 news reports presented with the screen in darkness, rooting us firmly in the time of the action, but literally floundering in the dark surrounded by confusing noise.
     The movie's single Oscar win (or tie) for Sound Editing does not dole out nearly enough love for the production team, who have put together a tight, precise package.  Sound is indeed an important element in the film, expertly designed and implemented.  This shows in everything from the calculated breaks in the silence of the raid to the news reports that play in the background to keep our time line oriented (a technique employed much more subtly here than in Killing Them Softly, but Zero is a much more subtle film).  
      Sound is also used cleverly during phone conversations between the C.I.A. home offices and agents in the field abroad.  A chaotic din in the desert background punctuates the mayhem that is never too far away, while the quiet on the other end of the line is demonstrative of the imposed illusion of safety and order that exists in America.  As always, Alexandre Desplat produces an effective score that underscores the scenes emotionally without becoming maudlin.
      The film is quite visually impressive as well.  The Make-Up and Hairstyling team make excellent use of facial hair in much the same way that I mentioned background noise being used in phone conversations.  In America, the character Dan (Jason Clarke) is clean shaven as he tries to return to "civilization" whereas he had worn a bushy beard in the field.  When he is in Kuwait, he sports a beard, but a more neatly trimmed one.  The editing of the film (which earned William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor an Oscar nod) is marvelously timed; all of the film's shocks truly startle the viewer.  Particularly effective are the cuts between night vision and regular lensing during the raid, creating a surreal atmosphere to the film that mirrors the mind set of the disbelieving soldiers.  Cinematographer Greig Frasier also turns in impressive work, framing scenes of beauty and desolation with equal ability.
     The film's supporting cast give unanimously capable performances. Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, and Joel Edgerton are all particularly memorable, and James Gandolfini makes the most of very limited screen time in an uncharacteristically subdued performance.  The real stand-out, however, is Jason Clarke.  In Dan, he has embodied a character who is both the brute and the scholar, the man and the monster, all in one neatly tied up (and physically imposing) package.
     Zero Dark Thirty belongs, however, to Jessica Chastain, an actress still relatively new to film (although she already has quite a history on the Broadway stage), but able to convey more by the tilt of her head while in three quarter profile (her back ALMOST turned to the camera) than most actors can in a straight on close-up.  In two years on the big screen, she has already secured two Academy Award nominations (the first for The Help), playing two characters who could not be more different.  As Maya, she presents us with a complex individual who is also a symbol for ALL Americans, especially ones of her generation whose entire adult lives were rung in by the sound of post-9/11 funereal bells, who faced the scariest period in anyone's life during a time when EVERYONE in this nation was being run by fear.
     This picture was originally titled Kill Bin Laden, and I actually think that the name is more apt.  A friend that I talk about movies with on a regular basis disagreed with me when I told him this, stating that Zero Dark Thirty has more finesse.  However, this is Maya's film and the girl is not about finesse or niceties.  She has to fight everyone every step of the way and all of her best lines include the word "fuck":  "How do you like Pakistan so far?" " It's kind of fucked up"; "I'm the motherfucker who found the place."  Regardless of its rough directness, the title "Kill Bin Laden" is more to the point and sums up the whole purpose of Maya's adult life.  She is asked what else she has done in the role she was recruited for straight out of high school and her reply is "Nothing.  I've done nothing else."
     The film caught a lot of flack in the press because of the use of torture by American agents against the detainees.  It was accused on the one side of advocating torture, on the other of demonizing American agents just following their orders.  It is easy to attack it from both political poles because it doesn't really make judgments either way.  Torture is presented in the film as something that Maya must learn to accept to accomplish the daunting task set before her.  As the scene where Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) is killed after lightening up on safety protocols to put a potential ally at ease aptly demonstrates, these people are playing a game where niceness earns you death.  Still, utilizing these extreme methods IS shown to weigh greatly on the men and women who must do so.  Dan may start the film out appearing to be a hard-ass with a heart of stone, but we slowly see that he retains a connection to his humanity through his interaction with the monkeys kept on base.  When the monkeys are killed, he is actually unable to continue in his role in the field, returning home before he loses his soul entirely to the whole unpleasant business.
     Humanity is hard to come by in this crusade, and impossible to hang on to.  The one time that Jessica gets Maya to relax her guard, the cafe they are in is bombed, chaos rushing in to wipe the illusory pleasantries out of their lives, much as every new counter-strike to the war on terror drove home the fact that the world was not as safe a place as many of us in the West had come to believe.  Maya tells Jessica that she's not "that girl who fucks", and she's not.  She's the avatar of man's far more carnal impulses: the blood lust borne of dreams destroyed.  After the compound has been discovered, Maya writes the number of days during which nothing is done about it on her supervisor's window as a daily expression of frustration and impatience for these desires to be sated, for some degree of sanity to return to a culture that cannot sleep or see the world through sympathetic eyes until our collective boogey man has been vanquished.
     (I don't think spoilers are possible in a film where the ending is such current news, but here is your alert anyway - Froggy)
     After Bin Laden has been killed, the soldier who shot him wanders back downstairs in shock muttering "I shot the third floor guy", utterly disbelieving that his finger had just ended the worldwide manhunt that had kept  the world in suspense for nearly half of his life.  I remember feeling a little stunned and disbelieving myself when I first heard the news.  Maya's reaction is even more telling as the girl that no one could shut up for twelve years is reduced to saying only one word throughout the last ten minutes of the film.  She silently watches the chopper carrying the body approach in awe and wonder, then approaches the body bag with a unique blend of trepidation, excitement, and distaste like a child unwrapping some horrible but irresistible Christmas present.  This quest has been her obsession, but once it is finished she doesn't know who she is without it, and isn't sure she's ready to go back to a "normal" life knowing what she has allowed herself to become in order to "Kill Bin Laden".  As she finally allows herself to feel again it should be a catharsis, but instead she feels drained of both her humanity and the cause to which she martyred it.  Easily...5 of 5 stars.

Related Articles: Killing Them Affordably (Killing Them Softly review), "The Help" review

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