The film Zero Dark Thirty has become a political football for its portrayal of torture and possible White House security leaks regarding the pursuit of Bin Laden. After much anticipation it was nominated for a paltry 5 Oscars this week. Director Katheryn Bigelow was ignored after winning for the affecting and tense “Hurt Locker” in 2009. Is this overall thumbs down on the film blow back from nervous Academy members? Or upset at the vicious torture sequences in the Bush-era section of the film?
No. It’s not.
The truth is easier: The film isn’t very good. And before anyone screams “sexism!” at the directing wing of the Academy for passing over Bigelow I must add: The films myriad flaws are not helped by the cold, dull directing. The searing tension Ms. Bigelow achieved with The Hurt Locker is nowhere to be found in Zero Dark Thirty. The hunt for Bin Laden feels like a bad pilot for a Homeland rip off.
Here’s a simple rule for films based on real events: If everyone knows the end already the only reason to watch is fully realized characters or delicious melodrama. See Francis or Titanic respectively. The plot centers on Maya an – apparently – real CIA agent who has spent her very short career chasing Bin Laden. Imagine the tagline: Fresh out of high school (not kidding!) female cuts her spook teeth chasing Bin Laden, finds him, bucks the old boys club, then overseas his demise. Now that’s a story! Yet we feel next to nothing for or about Maya in Zero Dark Thirty. There’s no character development. No indication why she was recruited out of high school, no weird personal ticks, no compelling back story for our hero. Nothing. On paper Maya is the most compelling female character one can imagine. In Zero Dark Thirty Maya is a beautiful dullard changing history mostly because the script said she would.
Speaking of the script by Mark Boal – it has a cut and paste feel: Recent history on flashcards interspersed with Law and Order rewrites.
Bigelow’s rendition of the Navy Seal’s attack on Bin Laden’s compound is in many respects the opposite of The Hurt Locker. It’s void of tension. We sit through a very long sequence of Navy seals shooting adults until they get to the top floor and shoot Bin Laden. (Oops! Spoiler alert!) Remarkably: the entire exercise is dull. Bigelow’s decision to shoot the sequence in a “We Are There” style without any directorial flourishes fails completely. It’s distressing when directors forget they are making films, not stringing together “shocking” news footage. The image of SoS Clinton with one hand over her mouth as she watched the assault unfold tells us more about the emotional, high risk tension of that moment than Zero Dark Thirty’s climax.
And if anyone cares at this point, the film is not agit prop for Obama in the least. There are a few perfunctory digs at Bush, but blessedly politics is mostly off the table.
Zero Dark Thirty has garnered praise because it rattles off our recent traumas and a recent triumph. But knowing the context does not relieve filmmakers of the responsibility of giving the audience context. We need to care about the people we’re watching make history. Lincoln, another film I’m not fond of, at least gave us fully human characters navigating a complex, high stakes drama. Zero Dark Thirty slowly drives us through a diorama of “the stick figures of recent history” then drops us off at the back door.