REVIEW: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’—The Meaningless Artifice of the Blank Expression

Jessica Chastain by Peter Lindbergh

In interest of full disclosure, let me say that I haven’t seen all of Kathryn Bigelow’s new film—a popcorn machine caught fire at the Arclight last night and we were evacuated during the crucial assault on the Abbottabad compound scene, I’m guessing fifteen minutes or so before the end of an overly long two and a half hours. Everyone thought at first that the alarms and flashing exit lights were part of the film itself.  As one audience member summed it up as we shuffled out, “At least we know how it ends.”

Indeed, you’d have to have been hiding in a cave deep within the Tora Bora mountains with just your wives, porn and no outside communication not to know how Zero Dark Thirty ends, or a considerable amount about the events that lead up to it.  In fact, Bigelow relies on the fact you already know most of the salient details.  Still, I would have liked to have seen the end because the attack on the compound seems to be where the film finally becomes exciting, so I blame Bigelow as much as the faulty popcorn machine at the best damned cinema in the world… Zero Dark Thirty is far too long, at least by half an hour.

Most of all, that is a very long time to be following as blank and insipid a character as Jessica Chastain’s Maya.

Maybe the decision to have Maya be the opposite of Claire Dane’s Carrie on Homeland, also a CIA counter-terrorism officer, was on purpose; there was a brief period on the internet when snarky memes abounded of bipolar Carrie weeping or just generally being cuckoo-bird manic.  But, oh, what a far superior piece of entertainment Homeland is to Zero Dark Thirty.  Yes, the latter makes the former look like overblown melodrama with its coolness, and intellectually stimulating juxtaposition of images, and more realistic portrayals of CIA operatives as bloodless sociopaths, but there wasn’t a single moment in Zero Dark Thirty when my pulse went above normal or I thought, “I should fast forward over this, but, no… must watch the whole scene, must watch it… don’t be a pussy…” as I sometimes do with Homeland.

The whole thing is this.  Plus torture. Plus bombings. And burqas.

The whole thing is this. Plus torture. Plus bombings. And burqas.

Let me catch myself here: “realistic portrayal”?  It’s not like Bigelow and her writer, Mark Boal, are bringing to the screen a real-life person; Maya is fictional, Allah be praised (she’s my nightmare dinner companion).  It’s just as well they have that Best Picture Oscar under their belts for Hurt Locker because otherwise I doubt they would have been allowed to make a film anchored by a character so utterly devoid of personality.  As a screenwriter with nowhere near the clout Bigelow and Boal have, I would never, ever be allowed to write someone like Maya, even if I were so inclined, which I would never be: it would be like pulling out my own fingernails with the computer keyboard.  Firstly, if I did take that risk, as a seasoned writer I know I could be absolutely assured I would get that most frustrating and commonplace of notes back from everyone associated with the project, from the studio exec’s assistant on down to the producers themselves: “I couldn’t connect with the lead.”  And for me that is a major flaw with this movie, but one that most professional critics are willfully overlooking in favor of lauding the filmmakers for their unflinching portrayal of the evils of torture, as if we have never seen torture before on the screen.  The difference appears to be that this torture really did happen.  Except that this is fiction.  Never mind.

I loved Hurt Locker, but was really surprised to see it win Best Picture.  I didn’t think it deserved it, and thought the win was a rather cynical power play between former spouses (Bigelow used to be married to James Cameron, who directed the competing Avatar) and a testament to the cronyism of the Oscar-lobbying process; to wit, one of the producers who sent out an email to Academy voters that is widely believed to have tipped the race in Hurt Locker’s favor (“Don’t vote for the $500-million cartoon,” basically), was banned from the ceremony, but was sent his statuette six weeks later.  However, Jeremy Renner’s character is a variation on the classic dramatic hero, and it works because that’s the way drama is meant to work: you pin your hopes and aspirations on the him right from the start, and he carries you through until the end.  This is basic Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces storytelling, people, not something I’m pulling out of my ass to use as a gratuitous complaint against what many critics are lauding as a fantastic film.

All I wanted while watching Zero Dark Thirty was for blank Maya to be replaced by wiggy Carrie, histrionics and all.  I came away with my long-held suspicion confirmed: that Jessica Chastain has to be the most overrated actress in Hollywood.  It’s one endless Terrence Malick perfume ad film with her.  But I also know much of the blame for this performance lies squarely in the way she was written by Boal and directed by Bigelow.

Crying Claire Danes in Homeland

A Crying Carrie meme.

To render Maya like this way is audacious for a big Hollywood film, I will give it that; just like me, Boal is bound to have had that super-subjective “I didn’t connect with the lead” note before in his career.  The only time you seen characters like Maya are in those annoying festival films that are never meant to see the inside of a multiplex—you know, where the lead stares out of a window most of the time, or into a murky mirror, or at a computer screen, and you’re meant to layer whatever she might be feeling or thinking yourself, if you’re not too busy wondering if you can handle another night of drinking at the Weinstein party after this screening.

No, baby, you need to engage me, tell me what to think, manipulate me, scare me, move me, grip the arm rests with tension, make me cough up a lung laughing.  The moment I have to think for myself is the moment you give me my money back because I do way too much thinking to begin with.

It’s apparent now from most modern films like this about the Middle East and South Asia—with the notable exception of Sam Mendes’ underrated Jarhead—that the Islamic world is awhirl in dust, choppily edited, its atmosphere turgidly colored, the sound disorienting, the conceal-all-weapons burqas a-flapping.  It’s a voyeuristic, disconnected, handheld world.  I might buy into this had I not begun my career in India and did not have my own more David Lean-ish sense of how the Indian subcontinent and environs should be portrayed; my visual style gravitates towards the most winsome composition possible in a given situation, even if it is a piss-coated torture cell, not towards creating indifferent images soldered together with grindingly cool “hip-hop” editing (I’m ambivalent about the “cool” any more, but I’ll leave it in—you know I’m being snarky).  That is Bigelow’s style, and this is her film not mine, nor would it ever be mine, despite the fact that I was on the ground when civil war erupted in Kashmir and have a firsthand, visceral sense of how all this madness began and where it gestated, and finally played out after boomeranging out to destroy a large swath of my native city and come back again to central Asia.  I have different tales to tell in that respect.

In many ways, Zero Dark Thirty is similar to Stephan Gaghan’s brave directorial debut, Syriana, except not as well written or performed.  I must compliment Bigelow on her choice of men, however—we have similar tastes in that respect.  But that is the sort of detail I shouldn’t notice had I been thoroughly engaged by her film.

There does come a point three-quarters of the way through when I allowed for the somewhat different art-house narrative language—and by ‘language’ I mean the combination of elements (visual, audio, textual, editorial, musical) that make up a film’s individual lexicon—that Bigelow and Boal have devised for Zero Dark Thirty.  Again, it is certainly audacious for a “big” Hollywood film, but does audacious make it any good?

Zero Dark Thirty

So thankful for hunnies like this.

I would have sacrificed that endless torture sequence in the beginning for the inclusion of an examination of something at least as outrageous and more germane to the story of the assassination of Osama bin Laden: the U.S.’s dysfunctional, reprehensible relationship with Pakistan.  Yes, occasional references are tossed into rapid-fire discussions about the ISI—Pakistan’s equivalent of the CIA—but I cannot image that the average moviegoer is going to understand what all of that means, and the deeper implications of the fact we not only supported but fostered this organization and the dictatorships under which it was allowed to flourish, from a nest of pissant third-world vipers into the multi-headed hydra that bin Laden’s brand of terrorism became.  While Bigelow is rightly unsparing of the wrongs of torture, she could easily have underscored how much we have brought all of this on ourselves.  Pakistan didn’t know bin Laden was there, a few blocks away from its equivalent of West Point?  Oh, come on.  This old India hand will tell you that is just impossible; the one thing I never had in India was privacy of the kind we enjoy and defend so dearly in the West—it’s something almost unheard of in that culture.

Sure, all of this is touched on, but it’s met with the same reaction as almost everything in the film: a blank expression.

Even James Gandolfini, of all actors, is directed to have a blank expression.  The only ones who have any sort of characterization we expect and deserve from a worthy drama are the heroes of the assassination mission themselves, the Navy S.E.A.L.s.  And it comes as such a breath of fresh air for the short time they occupy a long film.  (I’m deliberately not being fair to the extroverted female CIA operative, Jessica, played by Jennifer Ehle, who was so annoying—not for her performance, but her characterization as scripted by Boal—that I felt a guilty relief when she… never mind.  That’s a definite spoiler alert.)

Many critics have complained about the melodrama in Homeland, how the focus shifted too much in the second half of season two towards the relationship between Carrie and Brody.  But the first twenty minutes of the season finale, in which Carrie and Brody, happy at last in an idyllic cabin in the woods, are being scoped out by an assassin, are worth the entirety of the dramatic value of the two and a half hours of Zero Dark Thirty.  I could barely watch that first sequence of Homeleand without wanting to skip forward.  With Zero Dark Thirty, I was glad for the fire alarm that went off during the assault on the Abbottabad compound because it enhanced the otherwise ‘meh’ feeling I’d been carrying up until then.

There are plenty of worthier films out there already or coming out that you should see before this.  Still, for all of my ‘meh’ feelings, I salute Bigelow for bringing this ambitious project in for only twenty million dollars, for the audacity of the decisions she made, even though I don’t agree with them.  I also need to compensate for the fact my screening was interrupted before she could deliver her payoff.  So I give it a: NICE2


Comments: 2

  • ericjbaker December 31, 201212:29 pm

    I never want to see films like this, and you captured a big part of “why not” in this review: The hip-hop editing that is obligatory in warzone films these days (Can we blame Ridley Scott?). Never thought about it until you said it. I also can’t stand utilitarian military converstions replacing real interaction.

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