Zero Dark Thirty Review

Political Filmmaking Without a Political Agenda

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012) is a remarkably unique American war film. Few A-list Hollywood directors have so endeavored to make their film inaccessible to the general public. Originally titled Kill Bin Laden, the film was in the last stages of preproduction when the notorious fugitive was killed. Poised for production, Bigelow and her producers had been given a golden ticket. She certainly could have rushed through the shooting and released the movie by the holiday season. Obviously, no historical film has ever been released within six months of the event on which it’s based. Southerners would still be buying “Mission Accomplished” bumper stickers. President Obama’s followers would still be glorifying his name. College students would still be blasting “America (Fuck Yeah)” from their dormitories. With a PG-13 rating and a rousing trailer—undoubtedly, Kill Bin Laden would have been the most profitable war film of all time. In fact, I would argue that no other high concept title in blockbuster history has ever been so perfectly calibrated for maximum profit. Generally, the most successful high concept titles connote violence: Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), Titanic (1997)—each of these was the number one, all-time grosser upon its release. Adolf Hitler, George III—few, if any American enemies have ever been so ubiquitously despised. It could have provided catharsis for so many—but Bigelow had not intended it to be cathartic. Rather, Kill Bin Laden originally constituted the antithesis of a high concept title. Cynical, conspicuously ironic—Mark Boal’s script had originally ended the same way The Hurt Locker had: right where it had begun. Bigelow’s 2009 Oscar-winning film portrayed war as an endless cycle, and her Middle Eastern follow-up was meant to show the futility of 21st century warfare and the toll it exacted on its soldiers. But on May 2, 2011, current events complicated matters. Her reaction to Usama bin Laden’s assassination was opposite (presumably) of what James Cameron’s reaction would have been had he still been her husband/producer (the reason behind their divorce is becoming clear): she delayed her film, not wanting to capitalize on warfare, and changed the title to one only military personnel would be able to decipher. By de-glorifying the mission and convoluting the narrative, Zero Dark Thirty contravenes every marketable factor of the Hollywood blockbuster system. What results is a detached treatment of the war on terror that achieves novelty due to its political ambiguity.

In Michael Parenti’s essay “Political Entertainment,” he delineates the salient ideological messages promoted by conventional Hollywood entertainment. Bigelow’s film does reiterate two of these problematic messages—that “individual effort is preferable to collective action,” and that “U.S. military force is directed only toward laudable goals, although individuals in the military may sometimes abuse their power” (2)—but she reinterprets them, inflecting their standard depiction. “For manipulation to be most effective, evidence of its presence should be nonexistent,” Herbert Schiller writes (Parenti 3). In Zero Dark Thirty such “evidence” is prominent. Her film does not manipulate its audience; it avoids the aestheticized, pleasurable spectatorial experience that films like Top Gun (1986) and Black Hawk Down (2001) offer. Though it demonstrates their efficacy, Zero Dark Thirty ultimately discourages both individual effort and military recruitment by earnestly revealing the devastating, dehumanizing consequences that result from adopting these lifestyles.

When the CIA director gathers his analysts to predict the likelihood of Bin Laden’s presence in the Abbottabad compound, discussion is depicted as a hindrance. “I’d say there’s a sixty percent probability he’s there,” the first analyst states. “I concur,” says the second, “sixty percent.” “I agree with Mike,” assesses another, “I’d say it’s a soft sixty.” The film presents groupthink (the psychological phenomenon resulting from problematic conformity due to a desire to minimize conflict and a fear of antagonizing one’s companions) as the infectious result of democratic debate. Only the isolated individual is able to accurately assess the situation. “A hundred percent he’s there,” Maya accurately predicts, then distinguishes herself from her coworkers. “Okay fine, ninety-five percent, ’cause I know certainty freaks you guys out, but it’s a hundred.” Her individual effort strengthens her effectiveness—but she is hardly empathetic.

The film is constantly stressing the insular plane she inhabits. She is often compositionally isolated. In a motif of imprisonment, Bigelow frames her within the threshold to thematize her interior confinement, the camera shooting from outside the room to distance the spectator and represent Maya’s solitude (1.0-1.1). The heroine is often separated from her coworkers, positioned on the margins. When her team prepares to present their findings to the CIA director, she moves to sit away from the group, and a deep space shot emphasizes her isolation in the distant plane (1.2-1.4). Similarly, she inspects Bin Laden’s body alone, the Navy SEALs out-of-focus in the deep space to subjectively present her aloofness (1.5). Her self-imposed alienation is also depicted during shot-reverse-shot sequences—during her conversations with the Seals in the hangar and at the base, for instance—with medium shots chosen instead of close-ups to emphasize the emptiness around her, contrasted with her coworkers’ companionship (1.6-2.1).

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The film may support Hollywood’s message that “affluent professionals are more interesting than… ordinary service workers” (2), but it does so by illustrating the loneliness of the perpetual professional. Maya’s genuine happiness can only be elicited by good news regarding her mission. She does manage to find brief respite when Jessica encourages her to “socialize”—then the 2008 Mariott Hotel bombing abruptly pulls her back into the horrific reality of war (2.2-2.4). She subsequently strays from such social gatherings, her disillusionment demonstrated when she councils the new, enthusiastic analyst who offers to buy her a drink: “Don’t eat out. It’s too dangerous.” Maya eschews this communal tradition altogether, as all of her meals but one are taken alone, the only exception occurring when the director accosts her (2.5-2.7). Her antisocial behavior is borderline psychopathic, as she is highly manipulative, impulsively criminal, and without remorse. “I’m so sorry, Joseph,” she claims with insincerity after leaking the “top-spy’s” (as the news reporter names him) identity to the public, allowing her ally and benefactor to incur death threats so that she may remain uninhibited. Any display of intimacy after Jessica’s death is affected. “I don’t really care if your guys get sleep or not!” she yells at the squadron officer. When her belligerence is ineffective, she exploits her feminine appeal to get what she wants. The next scene shows her bringing the officer a beer, acting uncharacteristically amicable, and sitting uncharacteristically close to him to seemingly share his meal, her facade revealed by the fact that she merely toys with but does not eat her fries (2.8). When she needs to convince the SEALs of the mission’s necessity, she takes several steps forward to join the group before briefing them (2.9-3.2). Unlike the 1980s Hollywood militaristic hero who achieves victory through his introverted ambition—like Mad Max and Rambo—Maya discourages empathy, her actions often despicable and her suffering undesirable. The final shot is a strikingly long take (fifty-one seconds) depicting the agony of her victory; She has no friends (a fact that Jessica observes earlier), and because of the isolated path she has chosen, the success of her mission leaves her empty and displaced (3.3).

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Unsurprisingly, Zero Dark Thirty was not approved by the Pentagon if not only for its opening scene of torture—yet in the end, the film supports the military’s goals. Like 24 (2001-2010), its attitude toward torture is ambivalent. We see both its benefits and its dehumanizing costs. However, Zero Dark Thirty’s portrayal sharply contrasts 24’s. Jack Bauer typically conducts his enhanced interrogations during frantic, desperate moments in which he is racing against the clock. Dan, however, is in no such hurry. His sessions are drawn-out and futile, marked by a cyclical stasis evinced by the stoic Ammar when he repeats the days of the week rather than divulging the day of the planned attack. The two early torture scenes stand out not only for their brutality but also for their duration (7:37 and 7:16 in length). They are shot in real-time, entirely distinct from the rest of the film, which is cut with rapid editing (except for the raid, also shot in real-time to contrast the artificial urgency of films like Black Hawk Down, favoring total verisimilitude). Bigelow’s innovative approach is defined by a succinctness, condensing a vast time-frame into a relatively short narrative. Except when introducing a new location—each base indistinct from the next, the theme of inextricable imbrication symbolized by a prevalent grid motif (3.4-3.7)—she rarely employs establishing shots, typically beginning the scene with a close-up of the suspect being discussed, who is depicted in a video recording (3.8-3.9) or a photograph (4.0-4.1). At least one fourth of the dialogue is technically offscreen. Most conversations begin before the prior scene ends, and often, a character’s speech will accompany multiple transitional shots. For instance, we hear Maya speaking to a detainee before she has arrived and met him—four takes before a jump cut pulls us forward to the present (4.2-4.5). The film’s exceptionally swift pace makes the emphasis on the expository torture scenes all the more discomforting, and such a barbaric practice is portrayed as a highly undesirable occupation, as Dan is severely scarred, forced to retire early.

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Emilio Pacull’s Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies (2004) problematizes Hollywood’s recurring depiction of the military, and Bigelow reiterates several of their critiques in order to voice her ultimately patriotic (albeit critical) view of her country. As in Black Hawk Down, the soldiers are extremely disciplined; not one unarmed man or woman in the compound is shot (save Bin Laden), and they demonstrate altruism when Justin laments, “I fuckin’ smoked Abrar and his wife,” and Patrick voices his concern: “She still alive?” There is no moral ambiguity. The film clearly embodies the Manichean worldview that conceives America as a righteous power for good against an evil enemy. Additionally, Bigelow seems to trust her nation’s leaders more than Joe Trento, who complains, “The people currently in power… believe that it is okay to lie to the people in order to get the war to be won… That view is what’s being sold in Hollywood” today (19:52). Zero Dark Thirty justifies such subterfuge in its support for President Obama’s decision to violate Pakistan’s sovereignty without first consulting the nation. “This is pure risk, based on… inference, supposition,” the National Security Adviser tells George. “The political move here is to tell you to go fuck yourself and remind you that I was in the room when your boss pitched WMD Iraq.” The cabinet’s success restores faith in Washington’s clandestine decision-making that had been shaken by the Iraq War, positioning the film in strong contrast with Homeland (2011), which reveals the conspicuously evil CIA director and vice president’s murderous machinations and selfish, political impetus.

Zero Dark Thirty does, however, reveal the US military’s vulnerability. David L. Robb explains that the Pentagon disapproves of any depiction of faulty military equipment (4:37). Certainly, they would have been angered by the stealth black hawk helicopter’s malfunction and crash (4.6)—the machinery’s deficiency emphasized when a soldier stumbles, breaking and falling through the ultra-thin metal (4.7). Operation Hollywood’s narrator explains that the pre-Vietnam War film “celebrated the bravery of its soldiers and gave the armed forces an aura of invincibility” (11:17). Bigelow’s film contravenes such conventions in that victory is not glorified—no post-raid celebration, the score doleful rather than celebratory—and the US is anything but invincible. The narrative depicts the 2009 Camp Chapman attack—the second most devastating attack on the CIA in American history (4.8)—and George’s de-motivational speech stresses the fact that “we are failing! We’re spending billions of dollars. People are dying! We are still no closer to defeating our enemy.”

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Bigelow’s pessimistic film evinces a beneficial, educational approach to globalized media. In “Entertaining Democracy,” James Curran criticizes the “underdeveloped” news media system, accusing television—the primary facilitator of news—for being “organised primarily as a national medium, with national news priorities” (77). The film industry, however, has filled the global void: “Hollywood film production has become more internationalised, and its penetration of international markets has steadily increased… more global than is the case with news” (77). But its international depiction is primarily “organised around leading production countries like America, Mexico, Brazil, Egypt, India and China” (77), and, as Operation Hollywood explains, the imperialistic messages become problematic when the audience is uninformed, his conception of the third-world solely derived from movies. Zero Dark Thirty uniquely explores the unappealing Middle Eastern landscape. With the exception of short briefings in Langley and a scene at Area 51, every location is foreign. The decline of the nation-state that Curran posits (76) can be seen throughout, thematized by a fragmented flag. The US flag is rarely shown in its entirety—an image of tenuous patriotism (4.9-5.5).

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The film’s most predominant restructuring of normative ideology refutes the message that “women… are not really as capable, effective, or interesting as White males” ( Parenti 2). Here, there is no central male figure for her to lean on (as compared with third-wave feminist texts like The Hunger Games or The Devil Wears Prada, where the boyfriend’s support is desired, even if not needed). Surprisingly, no male character recurs throughout the film; any man present in the first third is absent in the third, and vice versa. Maya is an entirely unique heroine, and Bigelow’s narrative approach is feminine—but not feminist. She does not seek to empower women. Rather, she depicts a professional world in which women have no need for empowerment. Few if any Hollywood films have ever passed the Bechdel Test with such outstandingly high marks. In order to pass the test, the film must feature two women talking to each other about something other than men. The only men Maya will discuss are terrorists, unwilling to engage in stereotypical girl talk, as when she refuses to discuss the prospect of instigating a sexual relationship with her coworker Jack, despite Jessica’s insistence that “a little foolin’ around wouldn’t hurt you”—advice that garners no response. Instead, the narrative inverts heteronormativity by featuring four instances of men discussing the female, each of their conversations characterized by their respect for Maya’s formidability. “You don’t think she’s a little young for the hard stuff?” Dan asks, questioning her age, not her gender. “Washington says she’s a killer,” Joseph responds. “I’ve just learned from my predecessor that life is better when I don’t disagree with you,” Joseph’s replacement informs Maya, revealing that her ferocious agency had been the topic of his phone conversation. “It’s her against the world,” George’s friend observes. “Oh yeah,” he concurs, disgruntled by her exacting discipline. Finally, during the only specification of her gender, the CIA director asks his adviser, “What do you think of the girl?” “I think she’s fucking smart,” Jeremy answers. Sighing, the director responds, “We’re all smart, Jeremy.” His reply reveals that female sociological adequacy has been firmly established, their competence no longer questioned, their equality universally confirmed.

The only depiction of the news occurs during an unnatural manipulation of the diegesis so that we can clearly hear President Obama: “I’ve said repeatedly that America doesn’t torture, and I’m gonna make sure we don’t torture. Those are part and parcel of an effort to regain America’s moral stature in the world.” The fact that he has “repeatedly” made his claim reflects the strategy of the media’s propagandistic berating of falsehoods: repetition is necessary to manufacture familiarity and consent. Herbert Gans writes, “On news interview programs, repeating what an interviewee has said is a way for the interviewer to support the interviewee” (164). After hearing the president’s lie, Jessica merely shakes her head; no one bothers addressing the falsehood, accustomed to the media’s propaganda. Obama’s rhetoric reflects Jan Nederveen Pieterse’s vision of an “American Bubble” in which a general popular faith in the military is perpetuated by the media. Obama implies that the US has historically maintained a “moral stature in the world”—that other nations have seen our militaristic imperialism as a righteous cause, when the opposite has consistently been the case. The public’s acceptance of the media’s objective reporting of such messages reveals America’s ignorant worldview, shielded by the bubble. Zero Dark Thirty refutes the popular Hollywood notion that the US “military… has been a civilizing force for the benefit of ‘backward’ peoples throughout the Third World” (Parenti 2). While Black Hawk Down’s epilogue features a ridiculously fabricated scenario in which the third-world inhabitants applaud the American soldiers, overjoyed by their safe return (5.6-5.7), Zero Dark Thirty features no such depiction. Often criticized for its amorality, Bigelow’s film presents an unbiased report on the war on terror, letting the audience decide whether the benefits of our military’s actions outweigh the consequences.

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