The Greatest Manhunt in History

Zero Dark Thirty is a very good movie. Let’s just put that on the table right now. Strip away the politics and the controversy and what you are left with is an extremely well-made, methodical, focused, and well-acted film. It just isn’t very engaging on a personal, emotional level.

But even though it is still very good, to me it felt just a bit…distant. I missed it when it was in theaters and just recently caught it when I picked up the DVD earlier this week. After watching all 2 hours and 37 minutes of it, I just didn’t feel…I don’t know…very emotionally satisfied.

And yes, I still enjoy silly action movies that really aren’t engaging on an emotional level at all (like The Expendables and most Jason Statham movies), and for the most part I have no problem with that. I think I expected the experience of watching ZDT to be more cathartic, perhaps, than it actually was for me.

Maybe I’m a little biased because of how much I loved The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s 2008 Oscar winner. The Hurt Locker is one of the most tightly-wound suspense films I have ever seen. You are holding your breath for most of the movie, and you are also really involved with the characters. You care a lot about James, Sanborn, and Eldridge, the three protagonists of that film. They risk their lives every time they leave the safety of their base, and you grow to like and root for them, which heightens the nail-biting suspense even more, since you really don’t want these guys to get blown up. There’s also a palpable sense of mystery, since whenever these guys go out into the field they don’t know exactly what they will encounter any more than the viewer does.

I just didn’t really feel the same sense of suspense for most of Zero Dark. Part of it is probably that you know the eventual outcome: Maya the determined CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain is sure she’s right about where Bin Laden is, and it turns out that she is right. There’s really not much else in the way of plot, and not a whole lot else to Maya’s character.

Don’t get me wrong, Chastain gives a great performance, her steely-eyed determination is very convincing, and I was really rooting for her throughout the movie, she just doesn’t really have much personality beyond her laserlike focus on finding Bin Laden. This may be somewhat intentional, since the hunt for Bin Laden was something she spent ten years working on pretty much nonstop, so it’s understandable that she wouldn’t really care about anything else after such a long time spent in pursuit of such a specific goal. It just makes the protagonist a bit one-note despite Chastain’s very strong performance.

ZDT is still similar to Hurt Locker in many ways. There is a similar sense of focus which the style of filmmaking reflects. Let me try to explain what I mean by this, partly to myself as much as to anyone who may be reading this.

Maya in ZDT is completely focused on finding Bin Laden, and the film focuses on her search without any other concerns. There are no subplots, no family or backstory for Maya, no love interest, nothing. There is just her. I’m not trying to criticize the film for this, since all of it is meant to convey how much of herself that Maya put in to finding Bin Laden. She focused on it to the extent that she pretty much excluded everything else from her life, and the film itself reflects this. I don’t really know how else to say it.

The Hurt Locker is similar in the sense that Jeremy Renner’s character, Staff Sergeant William James, is focused on one thing and one thing only when he goes out into the field: disarming bombs. When he’s in the zone, he doesn’t give a damn about anything else, even his squadmates shouting at him over the radio, which eventually earns him a punch in the face from one of them.

It’s good to see focus like this. It can be really annoying when filmmakers attempt to do too much with their story, and try to do too many things and inevitably end up not actually doing any of them very well (look at Spider-Man 3 for a good example of this). Just like Maya, Bigelow’s film has only one thing in mind.

And the payoff is satisfying on many levels, it just didn’t quite pack the emotional punch for me that I guess I expected it to. It is also a very long film with a lot of talking, I thought 15 or 20 minutes could have been trimmed without the film suffering too much. By the end of those 2 hours and 37 minutes, I was starting to feel the length.

As for the controversy over the torture scenes, I honestly think it’s mostly irrelevant. A bunch of senators and whatnot with nothing better to do have made a big stink about the movie, saying that it promotes torture and portrays the use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques as having had a vital role in finding Bin Laden.

Frankly, I think all the controversy is irrelevant. For one thing, the film is a dramatization of actual events, and was never meant to be a completely factual representation of what actually happened. For another thing, all of the unpleasant torture-related scenes are in the first half-hour of the film, after that there is no torture for two hours. The torture scenes aren’t even particularly graphic. The scenes of torture and humiliation (one detainee has a dog collar put around his neck and is made to walk around on all fours) are certainly unpleasant and difficult to watch, but really not violent or gruesome.

And also, there is so much more that went into the hunt for Bin Laden beyond the torture-related stuff, it still took a hell of a lot of surveillance, intelligence-gathering, ground-level troops, and as Bigelow herself put it in an interview with none other than Stephen Colbert, good old-fashioned detective work. The film is not about torture. It just isn’t. I also think that just because the film includes scenes of what could be called torture doesn’t mean it endorses it. I really don’t think the film passes judgment on it one way or the other. Maybe torture was used in real life to gain intelligence on Bin Laden’s location, maybe it wasn’t. The important thing is that the torture scenes in ZDT serve a dramatic purpose, they are important to the film’s storytelling and they work as a plot device. Complaining that the movie endorses torture is simply a waste of time.

I suppose it is understandable that this aspect of the film was controversial. These kinds of things always are. Think of the frenzy Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ kicked up back in 2004. People will always see these kinds of things differently. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who would violently disagree with me about Zero Dark Thirty’s stance (or lack of it) on torture, but that’s just the way things are.

I for one am glad Osama Bin Laden is no longer alive. I sleep easier at night knowing a monster like him no longer draws breath. This film about the decade-long search for him may not be the best film I’ve ever seen (if we’re just talking about this year’s Oscar movies, I enjoyed Argo more) but I’m glad I watched it and I’m glad it was made.

I’m also glad that people like Maya exist. Thank you for all the work you do, knowing that you’ll probably never be recognized for it. We all owe you a lot, and I for one am really glad you’re out there.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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