Bigelow does the impossible and humanizes “The War on Terror” through a narrative driven by the interplay between conviction and doubt. And Navy SEALs.
|Hey, by the way, have you seen me in Mad Men? I'm actually pretty good.|
War (noun) - a conflict carried on by a force of arms, as between nations or between parties within a nation; warfare, as by land, sea, or air.
So here’s the deal. When you manipulate the definition of a word to serve political and public relations ends, you invariably lose a great deal of that word’s original context. And when you do it to a word as powerful and influential as “war”, you lose, well, context in its entirety. This is simply the nature of linguistics. So as renowned super smart dude James Childress once said, “In debating social policy through the language of war, we often forget the moral reality of war.”
Now I don’t want to sound super preachy or anything, but it is incredibly easy to lose that moral reality when you substitute abstract concepts (“freedom” as defined by Party A vs “terror” as defined by Party A (see the problem already?)) for tangible entities (Country A vs Country B). The consequences are that rules are bent and displaced, ambiguity reigns and prospers and the feedback loop for our conventional moral reality is no longer applicable.
With Zero Dark Thirty, Kathyrn Bigelow takes all of that, which is essentially what we regular folk tend to call the immensely vague “War on Terror”, and gives it a face. It isn’t a good face, and it isn’t a bad face. It’s simply… a face. Because outside of the events of 9/11, most of our relation to The War on Terror has been through a dictated narrative that we are mere consumers of. So if you’re a [insert standard liberal insult] conservative, then it’s probably been through Fox News and the like, and if you’re a [insert standard conservative insult] liberal, it’s most likely been through MSNBC and such ilk. But at the end of the day, political affiliations and loyalties aside, we’re all spectators far, far adrift from the reality of what The War on Terror actually is.
Zero Dark Thirty presents us with that reality in uncompromising terms. Torture isn’t presented in a negative or positive light because those conducting it don’t have the f*cking flexibility to give a sh*t about that kind of stuff. They have a job to do, and if the requirements of the job, like any job, fit within the parameters of conduct, they’ll do what they need to do in order to accomplish it. We, normal citizens, can afford to be concerned about the use of torture simply because we can afford the luxury of doing so. And we should. In fact, we’re obligated to in order to maintain some sort of balance in this f*cked up universe of ours. But this film isn’t about “us”. And it isn’t about torture. It’s about the reality of circumstances that we have no experience with. It’s about time constraints and making borderline impossible decisions with no room for error. It’s about being a human being working under immensely inhumane conditions and duress.
Look at it this way. Do the participants performing torture appear happy that they are conducting it? No, not at all. They come across as weary, tired… ultimately burnt out. And so do the terrorist suspects they interact with. Because, as one character so aptly puts it, “it’s biology.”
And it is. All of it. And that’s what makes the narrative so f*cking compelling. In a sea of indecision and uncertainty blanketed in a structure dictated by the idea that the rewards of a good decision are far outweighed by the consequences of a bad one, Jessica Chastain’s Maya has the balls and wits to stand alone to take the necessary steps to find and kill Osama bin Laden. Which, at the end of the day, isn’t really the worst goal in the world to have, right? And yet again, it all comes down to how far removed we are from the reality of the situation. We have no capacity to comprehend the complexity, the legality, the uncertainty and the degree of riskiness that such a mission requires.
Zero Dark Thirty brings us there. And it does so through it’s characters. I know, I didn’t appreciate it at first either. A character driven drama about The War on Terror that doesn’t take a pseudo-ideological stance but instead speaks to the realities of unconventional warfare and the effects it has on all of its direct participants? Jesus. That’s some gnarly sh*t, bro.
The irony of Zero Dark Thirty is that we all know how the climax unfolds, and yet it is among the most gripping series of scenes you will see all year. It, like the entirety of the film, is a display of a master storyteller weaving a very human tale. How Bigelow wasn’t nominated for best director is beyond me, but, whatever, f*ck the Academy. A work of art speaks for itself.
Final Grade - A