If I were to tell you that I found Les Miserables to be one of the most risible, painful, tooth-pullingly excrutiating experiences I've had to endure since, well, the last time I saw Les Miserables (on the West End stage) you probably wouldn't be surprised. It's got Russell Crowe singing in it. It's got Hugh Jackman hamming it up like no one's business. It's opera for imbeciles. It's a musical with NO DANCING. OR TUNES. You get the picture…
But if I tell you that I am equally, if not more, repelled by Kathryn Bigelow's forthcoming Zero Dark Thirty, now that's unusual… After all, it's taut. It's thrilling. The cinematography is classy and even the music's well thought out. And the acting's ok (in a rather broad-stroke US TV-kinda way). What's more, I loved The Hurt Locker. And have nothing but admiration for films as disparate as Strange Days and Blue Steel. In other words I'd far rather watch a film by Kathryn Bigelow than one by her ex (except, perhaps, Aliens).
So why is it that a week on I'm still trying to make sense of this Oscar-nominated tale of how the CIA tracked down and killed Osama 'Bugs' Bin Laden? I can only come to one conclusion. On some level, this is just a bad movie.
Well, maybe not completely 'bad' per se, but deeply troubling (as opposed to Les Mis, which was definitely bad, but will not trouble me one iota).
The bottom line is that I found the whole thing distasteful but have had trouble pinpointing exactly why. Any research into the film becomes equally unsettling because every bloody interview, review or even conversation that the film's provoked has been slightly contradictory. On one hand you have Bigelow herself claiming that the film's merely stating facts by including the torture of al-Qaeda suspects in black ops sites without being clear as to if any of the suffering led to breakthroughs, and on the other you have the review in this month's Sight and Sound by Guy Westwell which decries the narrative link of torture with getting results. Who's telling the truth here? How can such a misreading be possible?
It's easy to pass this off as the result of a subtly nuanced film about a difficult subject. And perhaps I'm taking this all too seriously, but surely a film with this serious a subject and completed a bare 18 months after the events actually took place deserves to be examined in depth? How am I supposed to respond emotionally to a film where Obama's anti-torture stance is depicted as a stumbling block to the agents getting to the information. And these are, presumably, meant to be the 'heroes' of the piece?
But ZDT is a heartless movie about heartless people doing heartless things so that we can pretend to be free, or it could be taken as a reactionary spin on the justification behind methods of extracting information from non-Americans, masquerading as the truth, because it's based on real-life events. I realise that it was originally green lit as a film about NOT being able to find Bin Laden, but the issues behind the true connection between black ops interrogations and evidence gathering, or the links between Bin Laden and all of the attacks shown make what Bigelow wants us to think of as more objective documentary than Hollywood flag waving a little more complex. However you examine the facts, and putting aside the liberal left's lobbying to have the film banned in the States, this is NOT unbiased reportage. This is a film, with a narrative. And it's a film that uses editing along with all the other tricks of the trade to drive this narrative.
And the narrative pay off is, of course, the final depiction of the raid. It's here that the real (lack of) heart of the movie lies. Deftly switching between hard-edged greys and the ghoulish green glow of night vision POV, the laser sights pierce the gloom making the whole thing look even more like any number of currently available first person shoot 'em ups. But while tense and gripping this is hardly heroic stuff by any traditional definition. Two helicopter's worth of SEALs (now that's a weird sentence) against a compound that contains about four men and 20 women and children. Big deal. And they still manage to total one of the top secret stealth choppers. The only thing they're truly concerned about is getting the job done before the Pakistani airforce arrive, and the only real issue here is that, even as they attack, no one (except Jessica Chastain as Maya) is positive that it's even OBL on the third floor.
So is this a comment on the distancing effect of making war like a video game, a sly comment about the hairiness of conducting an undercover operation, or is it just Bigelow showing her attraction for the toys of modern warfare?
Jessica Chastain's performance is also something of a conundrum. It probably wouldn't be quite so glaring if it hadn't been nominated for the Best Actress award, and my other experience of her work is mostly positive (she was really about the only good thing in Terrence Malick's Catholic clusterfuck, Tree Of Life), Unfortunately it's impossible to put it out of your head, possibly making me hypercritical. You find yourself thinking, as she delivers her impassioned demand for more resources from her sceptical superior 'oh, there's the Oscar bit'. But by the final scene, as she sobs from relief that she's got her man/the realisation that spending 10 years chasing al-Qaeda's leader has left her a friendless obsessive, you've not really gained any empathy. You've seen her go from squeamish ingenue to hardbitten pro, reusing the lines she picks up from mentor/friend as she interrogates suspects. All emotion (save the almost religious intensity she brings to the chase) is expunged in the face of getting the job done. Are we meant to feel sympathy for anyone in this movie?
Bigelow portrays nearly all CIA operatives in ZDT as… well, deeply unpleasant. Yes, I'm examining this as a soft liberal Englishman with little love for the imperialist antics of our cousins, but did they all have to call each other 'bro' all the time? Much is made of Chastain's diet of entirely good ol' american foodstuffs (explained because she refuses to eat out, following a bomb blast at the Marriott Hotel). The film groans with scenes of burgers, fries, coke and in one odd scene, cheese string. What's more at times the CIA are portrayed as borderline stupid. A suicide bombing in a military compound - red flagged as soon as the car enters the base (even down to having a BLACK CAT walk across its path) - comes as no surprise to anyone watching. The film's first half an hour is virtually unintelligible due to the rapid fire delivery of jargon designed to confuse the viewer, throwing you headlong into the cut and thrust of CIA oneupmanship. EVERYONE in this movie seems determined to get one over on their fellow agents. Even the 'friendship' between Chastain and Jennifer Ehle as fellow operative, Jessica, begins with a put-down at a meeting, even if it ends with them sending each other girly texts just before the aforementioned suicide bombing.
Maya is a lone voice in the wilderness, crying out to her bosses to take her seriously, long after (we're expected to believe) the trail goes long cold and the Agency's targets change. But ultimately (and I'm aware that both Bigelow and various cast members point this out as well) the entire plot hangs on one researcher finding a forgotten picture in a file of a crucial link to OBL. This would indicate that Bigelow has spun gold from very dull stuff indeed. If this is the 'truth' then what IS the justification behind making ZDT? If Bigelow is such an opposer of the use of torture, why make such an ambiguous movie? And it is ambiguous. How else do you explain the misunderstanding and contradiction that hounds any press surrounding ZDT? And if she denies the 'entertainment' value produced by every single production decision what exactly are we left with? To European eyes this is a film that highlights the cultural bankruptcy of the USA when faced with fanaticism. Yet I'm sure that's not how it's going down in US cinemas…
So, is Bigelow trying to double bluff? Is the film really an ANTI-torture piece? Why am I having to ask so many fucking questions?
In the end if we buy Bigelow's protestations that this is film merely in service to journalism, you can just about go along with the theory that she was also casting a weary eye over the parlous state of US politics and foreign policy, while as skewering the vacuous nature of western culture in the face of fundamentalism. But only just. And that, in itself, is what's wrong with this film. It wants it all ways. It cannot be objective when viewed through a filter of any authorial voice. And Bigelow, with her ongoing fascination with a woman's place in a man's world, the hardware of modern warfare and the seductive gleam of blue steel, has served up a movie that seems to want to attract US audiences and simultaneously repel the rest of the world. Part of me wishes that she'd come off the fence and been more honest with herself. Either way, Zero Dark Thirty is a grim view of where the world is right now.
Zero Dark Thirty is released in the UK on January 25th