I knew I was going to watch Kathryn Bigelow’s next movie, no matter what it would be about but I would have wished she had chosen another topic.
Zero Dark Thirty is an almost 3 hour-long movie on the hunt for Bin Laden. It starts on 9/11 … with voices of victims recorded during the attacks. Next thing we’re in a detention center in Pakistan witnessing CIA agents torturing a man. A male agent is torturing while a female CIA agent, Maya, is watching. Maya is new, recruited fresh from college, and assigned to one of the most important tasks in CIA history – the hunt for Bin Laden.
While she only watches the interrogations at first, she will later lead them and become the most important agent in this assignment. As early as 2002 0r 2003 she starts to follow a lead, a man she believes to be in contact with Bin Laden himself, a courier. Unfortunately the guy is very elusive, the captured and tortured men contradict each other, his name seems only a nick name, his true identity cannot be found. Eventually he is even said to be dead.
Maya is considered to be obsessed and her superiors start to doubt that what she is pursuing is real. But she won’t give up and is proven right in the end. The rest is history.
I felt very uncomfortable watching this movie. The torture scenes are unpleasant and the fact that the US, who always denied that they use torture, are shown doing it even more so.
Does the outcome justify this? The movie is showing the story as it was. Or is it not? That’s the big question. What we see are scenes showing a group of CIA agents trying to find a man, using every possible way, alternating with scenes from terrorist attacks. Islamabad, London, New York…. While the CIA hunts Bin Laden, the terrorists don’t sleep.
The movie takes a lot of time to tell the story and the first 2 hours are long. I couldn’t help finding the last action-packed sequence interesting. They show the final moments, when the special troops invade the compound where Bin Laden was hiding and how they kill him.
The movie is OK but certainly not a must-see. I’m clueless why anyone would want to make a movie about this. If you are not familiar with the details, it’s interesting to watch but it still left a very bad taste. It is like a documentary and never questions anything, never accuses. It seems to say that without torture, Bin Laden would never have been captured. That’s quite possible but does that make torture acceptable? On the other hand, terrorism is despicable…
I was wondering why Bigelow chose this topic. Because a woman found him? Since I’m not watching the news very often, I don’t know how much was known about the CIA’s interrogation techniques. Is the movie meant to get rid of the general public’s naivety about torture?
I don’t think I’ve seen Jessica Chastain who plays Maya before and couldn’t help comparing her to Claire Danes in Homeland. I’m afraid I like Danes much better. Not only as an actress but I also like her character better. She seems a tad more conflicted about what she is doing. Other actors worth mentioning are Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton.
As I’ve just said above, this isn’t a must-see. I’m truly disappointed in Kathryn Bigelow.
Have you seen the movie? Did you like it?
Respectfully disagree. I think this is one where we come down on opposite sides because of where we are coming from. As an American, I could not wait for this movie and found it very satisfying. I can see where Europeans would be ambivalent. No doubt it is not a must see for non-Americans, but for Americans it is a different situation. For us, it is history that can not be allowed to be forgotten. You can not be serious when you say that you are surprised anyone would want to make a movie about this. I am just thankful the inevitable movie was done so well.
I do not think abhorrence of torture is a good reason to fault the movie. Of course the U.S. government is going to deny officially some of the tactics (although the government basically admited to water boarding which is depicted in the movie). It is not the depiction of the torture (which I did not find particularly gruesome and certainly was much tamer than what some suspects were put through on our behalf by some of our less humane allies), it is controversial because of the conclusion that those methods worked. We both would agree that it would be better if there was conclusive proof that those types of methods are ineffective, but let’s not be that naive. Do you think there were no breakthroughs using pain to get people to talk? Being wrong does not necessarily mean being not right.
I read where Bigelow did not originally plan for the movie to cover the buildup to and the mission itself. It was just going to be about the mission. She discovered the Maya character in the research stage and decided to structure the film narrative around her. How can you disagree with this decision? Do we have too many real-life heroines in film? I also believe that once the decision was made to concentrate on Maya and the quest to find the courier, the research brought in the torture facts. I do not believe the movie is trying to justify or condone torture. And to tell the truth, although I am against the use of torture to elicit information, I will make an exception for getting Bin Laden.
Sure, yes, being European makes me far more critical of it.
I have a lot of other problems with the movie. Content and form are off. I don’t find it a creative movie at all. Informative, yes, maybe. I feel this is one of those cases where I can not answer adequately in a comment. It would be too long.
I would also like to disagree on Maya being a heroine. I don’t find spying on people and torturing them heroic. It’s not a line of work I admire. She was very clever, very determined but not heroic.
I think this movie should appeal or not appeal to a viewer regardless of his or her place of birth. Although the topic may be more inherently “interesting” to Americans than people from other countries, its success or failure as a film should have nothing to do with the audience’s nationality or whether one “gets” what the War Movie Buff suggests non-Americans aren’t getting about the movie. Also, although I agree with some of the War Movie Buff’s other observations, I think it’s mistake for him/her to suggest that all Americans view 9/11 as “history that can not be allowed to be forgotten.” It was a terrible tragedy that has since spawned other tragedies in other countries in response, but I don’t think that much of the U.S. media’s ongoing fetishizing of the disaster that happened on 9/11 year after year is something embraced by all Americans equally.
I’m pretty sure not all Americans felt about it like The War Movie Buff but it’s a fact that in Europe there was far less interest and many criticla voices.
I couldn’t help that it had an agenda and that wasn’t only to show things the way they were but to show “We can do it, we can catch anyone.” And for some viewers it must haven been cathartic. I don’t think many Europenas saw it that way.
It won’t be in theaters here until the end of February… Jessica Chastain played in Malick’s The Tree of Life, by the way.
Irrespective of the film’s content, I’m still amazed at Hollywood’s ability to deliver fictions about almost current affairs.
I haven’t seen The Tree of Life. I didn’t think she was all that good in this. But it’s not a role with a lot of dialogue or facial expressions. Hard to judge.
I would be curious to know what you think of this.
I think this was a bit too contemporary for me to be meaningful. I wouldn’t have watched a lot of WWI movies in 48 or so.
It isn’t in the French tradition, I guess… Even in the immediate aftermath of WWII there were only a few films about it (many more were produced after 1958).
There was a short streak in the 70s of movies dealing with almost current political/military events (Boisset about Ben Barka, Coutard about Zaïre, even Costa-Gavras but it was not about France), but it ended quickly.
I still think it’s odd today, considering in the last 25 years French forces have been involved in operations in Lebanon, former Yugoslavia, and too many African countries to list… Not to mention intelligence activities.
What is odd? Not to make any movies about more recent events?
It’s maybe linked to the topics. France isn’t a “war movie” country, at least that’s how I feel. There are a few co-productions but not many.
I just think something that happened barely a few years ago doesn’t make a very interesting movie. But be assured, I had other problems with this film.
Yes, it seems odd to me that the French don’t make more movies on these subjects, especially since the last 25 years. And you’re right, that kind of subject doesn’t necessarily make good movies (it’s easy to see why it’s risky).
Nevertheless, such productions mean that ‘fiction’ has its say about current events – that the matter isn’t left only to the ‘reality’ claimed by news outlets. French contemporary visual artists often refer to current political events, including violent ones – cinema people just don’t.
Now, on this particular subject, it’s hard not to acknowledge that Bin Laden was considered in the U.S. as an arch-villain… ie something that has been a widespread figure in american fiction long before 2001. And of course, it takes a a super-hero to beat an arch-villain, so I guess a movie in that form was inevitable, irrespective of whether we find the form itself relevant or not.
PS: I’m hopping East this week, so I’ll probably grab a copy (I just hope the russian overdub will be easily removable).
I’ll be interested to hear what you think once you “hop back”.
I suppose there are also quite a lot of political reasons why this type of movie isn’t made more frequently in France. When there is an attempt like in the case of Special Forces, they get a harsh beating up – and despite the fact that I sort of liked it, I found it too American as well.
I think this arch-villain thing annoys me as well. Especially considering that he was thought quite useful once…
The whole obsessed CIA woman catches him on her own is fabricated as I found out meanwhile.
I don’t find her heroic at all, I said it above. I cannot forget that this isn’t some Marvel comic adaptation but a true story. I really hope nobody in this will garner and award. It’s not deserved. The Hurt Locker was at least very gripping and critical as well.
Doubt I’ll see it. I know the ending.
And I doubt that’s the reason why you will not watch it.
Thanks Ukraine… 🙂 Indeed I watched the movie till the end, for I, too, wanted the reenactment of that cathartic ending. Gotcha. Done, or should I say done for.
But… is this the story of the most expensive home-jacking in World History? We see billions of dollars in clerical work, office supplies, bdsm apparel, bribe money, kerosene, weapons research and military training being spent in order to assassinate one guy in a suburban villa.
This apparent disproportion in means isn’t questioned at all and thus becomes quite funny, particularly in the over-extended assault scene. I guess kids in Peoria will play “let’s get Bin Laden” at their parents’ detached house. An augmented-reality iPad App should be available soon – will the boogey man be hiding in the master bedroom’s closet or in the attic?
I apologize for using irony here. I believe there are actual reasons for this disproportion, but they’re never dealt with. The Camp Chapman episode is rather emblematic: it could have been used to give us a hint about the complex game between the U.S. and their Middle East allies’ intelligence agencies – one of the reasons why it took so long, why it took (and still does) a giant sledgehammer to crack a nut. But instead, what we get is ‘look, we bring them cake and they bring bombs’.
And there’s the little clerk that could. Now, the whole film is obviously written and shot in a detached ‘documentary’ style; I’m not a fan of the attire, but I can understand the attempt. The problem is the role is so robotic I couldn’t care less, and the same goes for her colleagues. We never leave the surface, and the surface is terribly bland – she fits perfectly in a world where certainties, procedures and assertiveness apparently reign supreme over brains and emotions. Is there a human in the room?
There are actually a few attempts at going deeper into some characters. The first two are botched, either with gross sentimentality or incoherence: Jason Clarke’s part was quite titillating until that ‘they killed my monkeys’ line, and so was Jennifer Ehle’s part until her immediate reaction to the Marriott bombing – where she and Maya run away without the slightest regard for the other victims laying around them. From a human point of view, the only scenes I could relate to were those played by Stephen Dillane as National Security advisor, but then they’re quite short…
In my view Zero Dark Thirty is a double failure: it fails to bring the global intelligence context alive, and in fails in the human interest department. What’s left? Surely, the rythm is enhanced by the stroboscopic editing, the sprinkling of vaguely-related bombings and an assault scene whose minutia merrily crosses the border of fetishism – though not avoiding ridicule in its exhilaration, as in that ‘Pakistani coms: no chatter’ line by the operative who doesn’t speak Urdu, which brought back in my mind those enchanting ‘Warp speed five, Captain’ from the Star Trek original series…
It’s as entertaining as Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France. Meaning, a lot – only not for me, and as far as recent spy movies go, I’d rather re-watch Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
PS: I tried to stay away from politics, but I can’t help adding that I’m not surprised that Michael Moore liked this movie.
Yes, yes, yes, I agree on every point and would like to add – what’ there to be proud of – it took them over 10 years to cathc one guy. 10 years!
Moore liked it. Hmm.
I’m glad you mentioned the robotic people. I don’t think the acting was stellar at all. It may be dictated by the script but in any case, theese are not great charcaters and therefore the acting cannot be great.
Whatever… I don’t think it’s great and didn’t find it cathartic.
Imho, the actual event was a closure, even ten years after. Even more so, perhaps, and I guess the main tune of the film is ‘somebody still cared’.
The whole thing may seem strange from an European point of view, since we were targets of numerous bombings but it never got so personal. However, I have enough American close friends to understand that for them, it was that way – so I won’t question the grounds for the movie.
There’s a bunch of good actors, so I’ll blame the script. Watch somebody like Mark Strong in Tinker Tailor…, and enjoy the difference.
I’m not saying I don’t understand it from an American poit of view but as you wrote, we had that – I remember the bombings in Paris is ’95, I just started to study. Taking a métro was a real risk, We had to leave the uni constantly because of alarms. That was really scary but it never got that personal. Yeah, well.
Incidentally, if you happen to be near Aix-en-Provence in the coming weeks, I think Huang Yong Ping’s Abbottabad is worth experiencing.
Thanks a lot, that’s so interesting but I dodn’t think I’ll be able. I’m not anywhere near Aix-en-Provence in the upcoming weeks.
Nem, do you seriously think that a Pentagon that spends thousands of dollars on a toilet seat is going to be concerned about how much money it costs to kill the most wanted man in American History? Should they have set a reasonable figure and then when it was reached, stop the hunt? The killing of Bin Laden – priceless. You know what would have been more “cost effective”? A cruise missile. But then you people would be moaning about the “innocent” children that were killed.
As far as the ten years, I blame the Bush Administration dropping the ball on the hunt. In fact, the hunt should have been over in Tora Bora, but we stupidly insourced it to the Afghanis.
It amazes me how non-Americans can not “get” this movie. I am sure you were disgusted by “Munich” and “Raid on Entebbe” and “Valkyrie” and could not see what motivated the “good guys”. All that trouble by Von Stauffenberg to murder one man!
I personally am shocked that Michael Moore liked it. Please explain your reasoning.
It plays like a documentary. Are you serious?
By the way, the capture of Adolf Eichmann took fifteen years. Stupid Israelis!
I thought that the Israelis might not have had the same technology and advanced methods at the time.
I don’t think a comparison between Hitler and Bin laden is very useful.
You do realize that Valkyrie does show a huge failure. It’s no banging the drums movie and it was done a long, long time after the fact.
That’s my issue. This movie came way too soon.It feels dishonest to me, as if she’d been commissioned to do it, if you know what I mean.
I’m not questioning the hunt, there was no other way to deal with it but, if it had been dropped for a while, then that’s wrong.
I think it rather felt anti-climatic when he was killed. There were so many rumours that he was dead already. When it was on the news my first reaction was “Bin Laden has been killed? How is that possible? I thought the guy was dead.”
This is fun, by the way.
My point about Eichmann is not that it took so long, but that the amount of time is meaningless if the goal is important.
Bin Laden is not in a league with Hitler, but they both were the biggest villains of their time.
My point about Valkyrie was that it was worth the effort
My view on the timing of the movie is that there was inevitably going to be a movie on this topic and I am just glad that the first one was outstanding (I am aware you disagree with that!), Movies are usually made to make money. There is no doubt this movie will make more money by coming out when people still know who Bin Laden was then if it came out years later. There are numeous examples of movies coming out and then sucking the air out of the room for future movies on the same topic.
As far as his death being anti-climatic – thank God the makers did not fictionalize it for more excitement. It was what it was.
In America, Bin Laden was not thought of as already dead so much as forgotten by many (which is what the Bush Administration intended). Your last comment plays to my thesis that non-Americans come to this movie from a different place and this influences your view.
Yours is the only American view I’ve read on this blog, so I wouldn’t know. Fact is that many, many American people, actors, critics, other film makers have huge problems with this movie as well. For various reasons. I think we should try not to mix up the movie with its topic. I think that not being American makes me less emotional about it, that’s for sure.
Did you attend the same speed-reading course as Woody Allen’s? I couldn’t care less about the actual cost, nor was I commenting upon policy. I even tried to explain why in my view there were sufficient grounds for making a movie on this subject. But above all, I care about what is shown on a screen. And maybe you should, too.
The film deliberately emphasizes the asymmetry between the hunting and the hunted. It does so at the beginning by showing ‘Amar’ as a single individual caught in the net of a large ‘detainee program’. It does so in the chapter where the courier – a guy who simply changes pay phones in a densely populated area – is localized (the shot of a NSA-monitored forest of wires in a phone exchange room, the tracking of the cell phone signal). It does so in the last chapter, in too many ways to list.
Then, two things are blamed for the delay: ‘they’re all fanatics’ and ‘priorities have changed’. So far so good, but in my view it carefully avoids to elaborate on the relationships between U.S. intelligence and their ‘allies’ in the region. I mentioned this point about the Camp Chapman episode, I’ll add that it is never made clear why the Pakistanis aren’t in on the last stages – we see them arresting Abu Faraj al-Libi in 2005, don’t we?
Now, the Pakistanis being left aside seems to be the main reason for both the solitary tracking of the courier in the streets of Peshawar, and the disproportion of the assault on the villa. By the way, it is made clear that ‘a cruise missile’ was no solution, as they’re not sure the man is in the house… and the house is on the territory of an ‘ally’, isn’t it?
By giving priority to the display of might, I think this film fails to address the context and the constraints of such an asymmetric conflict. As a result, while it carefully avoids showing the face of Bin Laden (which is laudable), it could very well play in favor of the ‘underdog complex’.
PS: as far as the rest of your reply is concerned, I won’t answer it until you learn to read again and change your tone.
I apologize for the tone. I am more invested in this topic than most. I do realize that you threw out provocative statements in your opening and then backtracked on them.
You question my reading ability? I question your use of the word “irony”.
Let’s stay civil here. I actually have a lot of respect for you and enjoy your comments.
Apology accepted of course, and as we say here: nem baj. 🙂 Surely the words sarcasm or satire were more appropriate, but as much as I can understand your feeling offended, your were jumping to conclusions in your reply – or perhaps you were answering Caroline.
I haven’t seen Raid on Entebbe since I was a kid, and I remember not liking Munich very much overall, but then I’d have to watch it again to tell why as I also remember liking parts of it. Have you seen The Assault? Anyway those ‘hostage situation’ movies form almost a sub-genre, to which Zero Dark Thirty hardly belongs. Did you mention them because (and I don’t know why) you thought I was objecting to the real assault on the villa?
The Eichmann reference seems more relevant: although he was not active anymore, he was hiding in a country Israel wasn’t at war with, and certainly was a symbol. I haven’t seen any of the fiction films focusing on his hunt and capture. But I’m surprised you didn’t mention… Geronimo, the Apache. Is it because his memory has somehow been reevaluated? It didn’t prevent his name from being used in that operation, though.
Finally about Michael Moore: in my opinion he mostly uses cheap, blunt tricks to induce a certain exhilaration (I knew it! I knew it!) and then righteous indignation. See the analogy?
Thank you. I value our relationship.
Nem, when I used “you” in the paragraph about Munich and other movies, I did not mean you specifically. I meant the non-American critics in general. We Cajuns have a term “y’all” (for “you all”) that is more appropriate in designating the plural you, but I did not want to use it when commenting to you. You already think I am a rube. LOL I mentioned Munich, Entebbe, and Valkyrie to point out some operations are worth the cost, time, and effort no matter what.
I was not offended. I was just defending the movie.
I did not want to put words in your mouth, but I did think you meant to use something like “exaggeration” instead of “ironic”.
I still don’t get the Moore mention. I am shocked he would not have reacted very negatively to the torture aspect.
The Geronimo pass word has come under some criticism for the SEALS choosing it. Understandable because Geronimo has a positive reputation today. He should not have been linked to UBL. We Americans admire worthy adversaries as long as we kicked their ass. e.g. Rommel
About Moore’s opinion, this line from Richard Brody’s review in the New Yorker may give you a clue : “The movie’s pseudo-objectivity is a willful ambiguity of a very distinct sort; its willful rejection of the inner life is a posturing stance of cool, an attitude of no attitude.”.
By the way, I fully agree with the aesthetic points raised in this piece. I tried to make roughly the same in my own clumsy way, and you didn’t address them at all in your defense… but of course there’s no obligation.
When you mention that many Americans have huge problems with the movie that is an exaggeration. In fact, of the nine Best Picture nominees only one got better reviews (Argo). 93% of critics (on Rotten Tomatoes) reviewed the movie favorably. That is remarkable since critics are predominantly liberal and would seemingly have problems with the torture aspect.
I’ve read a lot of reviews and they were critical.
You know that I don’t really believe being nominated for an Academy Award means a lot.
A different take by philosopher Slavoj Žižek (whose thoughts I do not always enjoy) on the moral questions raised by the claimed ‘objectivity’ of the filmmaker. It focuses on torture, but I think the reasoning echoes several things that have been written here when assessing the movie as a whole.
Disclaimer: it might be hard to overlook the underlying anti-american political rant in this piece, but this isn’t the reason why I’m bringing it to your attention.
Thanks a lot for attaching this. I think this is very interesting and I’m afraid he does have a point.
I was living under the impression that there was no endorsement of torture in the movie but there certainly is some normalisation.
I didn’t pick up on that at the time, but I see his point in the article. he made a good point when he said that if a rape scene was filmed like the torture scene people would be disgusted.
Certainly but I’m still not sure that we can really say it’s endorsement.
I was pretty disgusted by it all but I liked the point that it’s absurd to exclude water boarding from torture…. That’s so hypocrite.
I wouldn’t say the movie is for torture, but it didn’t really show it was against it either. And I’m not sure how some believe water boarding is not torture. Almost drowning a person inflicts pain and fear–to me that’s torture. I really hope the US has stopped it. when I heard it was being used it made me ill. What will happen to our soldiers if they are captured in war. I don’t want to see anyone treated poorly in any situation. that’s why there’s the Geneva convention.
Well, US soldiers, like French, British or any other Wester soldiers would be tortured. If the US would stop torturing that wouldn’t mean other countries wouldn’t do it anymore but it would mean that the US would be more humane. I know France tortured extensively in Algeria and so did the Algerians. Both parties behaved beastly and to this day a lot of French patriots try to deny it. Someone even told me that my father must be delusional if he pretended he witnessed it… It’s an ugly topic. I see why they think water boarding is not as bad as cutting of fingers etc. but it’s still a cynical way. Torture is torture. My father told me about a method used in Algeria which was to line up prisoners in order to shoot them – as they were told – and then shoot over their heads. Naturally, they lost their nerves, ended up crying and telling a lot of things. I think that that is torture as well.
I just noticed the book blog has reopened this discussion and Caroline gave me a shout-out. I am not going to go deep into this discussion again, but I will point out that regardless of your opinion on torture and whether it was justified or effective, the movie is tame in depicting it. If you are upset with what is shown in the film, you best not delve into what actually happened in some cases. And I am not even referring to the suspects that were shipped off to allied countries who have few restrictions on enhanced interrogation techniques. I am against torture, even waterboarding which is in the lower end of the pain spectrum, but I think it is wish-fulfillment to assume it does not work.
That’s actually not the point, our discussion circles more around whether or not a movie depicting torture, is automatically endorsing it as the article states and I’m still not sure about it.
I don’t doubt that torture works and that more horrible ways are used, it would be naive to believ otherwise.
I thought it was interesting to get another US opinio and since both Carole and TBM are Americans and have just seen the movie, the book discussion naturaly went into that direction.
« the movie is tame in depicting [torture] » – Glad you see that, too.
I don’t think the blandness is due to the technique being enacted: we’ve seen movies before in which even a prisoner’s moral dilemma could be horrendous. It’s entirely about the way it is scripted, played, shot and edited. About filming.
Since this blandness is deliberate – and in my opinion goes throughout the whole film – it seems impossible not to discuss the Verfremdungseffekt.
I finally saw Zero Dark Thirty yesterday, Caroline, and I thought it was an OK enough movie for its story although I agree it wasn’t a “must-see” overall (some of the casting and the performances rang false to me, as did Chastain’s final scene). As far as your reaction to the torture scenes goes, I think that’s probably exactly the sort of response that Bigelow wanted to provoke in her audience: those scenes should be unpleasant to watch from an ethical standpoint. On that note, I applaud Bigelow for a rare moment of directorial subtlety in a big budget movie; I think it’s great that she left it up to the viewer to decide whether the end justified the means in the hunt for Bin Laden rather than hammering us over the head with her own viewpoints about torture. I think that question is a big part of what the movie’s about. P.S. I haven’t read the rest of the comments here yet, but I look forward to doing that now since it seems this film’s inspired a little more debate than usual.
I certainy agree that the torture scenes should make us feel uncomfortable but as te discussion above shows and some of the links provided by nem ban, she was criticized as you could still see it as endorsement.
I think it was far too early for a movie like this but that’s my opinion. The cast was OK but not great. i was hoping for something more.
I haven’t read the links yet, but I’m not sure what they’d do to sway me given that we can all make up our minds about what we’ve seen in a movie without calling on outside intrepretive assistance from others. Is there anything in the film that you see as evidence of Bigelow endorsing torture? I thought there were a lot of flaws in the film, but I don’t see that as one of them.
I didn’t see it like that at all. I found the way it was told boring and didn’t see the point in the movie this soon but I personally thought she was against it and wanted to revela that this happens despite the fact the US government denies it.