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Film Review

Collateral damage

1/2/2013

Film“Zero Dark Thirty”

3 stars

Rated R

160 mins.

Action

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Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt

Kathryn Bigelow’s cinematic version of the U.S. military’s absurdly protracted 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden is not what you would expect. Bigelow’s frequent screenwriter collaborator, and former war reporter, Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker”) crafts the film as an investigative procedural. Boal emphasizes America’s notoriously brutal and ineffective torture methods. The film’s first act focuses on the ruthless interrogation of one hopeless prisoner at a “black site” prison where CIA goon Dan (Jason Clark) repeats his mantra, “If you lie to me, I hurt you.” The psychological scars of soldier Dan’s addiction to inflicting pain take its toll. Torture is reciprocal.

The intense grilling sequences present a crash course in U.S. military torture tactics. Sleep deprivation via stress-position-bondage and heavy metal music blasting at ear-splitting volume is a warm up to the daily ass-kickings and verbal and physical humiliation agent Dan doles out like a priest giving communion.

Dan tells his newly assigned CIA assistant Maya (Jessica Chastain), she doesn’t want to be the one “caught holding the dog collar” when the oversight committee comes sniffing around. Dan knows how far beyond the pale he has slipped. He’s only a couple of rungs down from Brando’s character in “Apocalypse Now.” Maya’s discomfort at observing Dan waterboard the victim allows the audience a glimmer of distanced empathy with the film’s gutsy female protagonist.

It doesn’t take much imagination to extrapolate about how Western audiences would respond to witnessing such Geneva Convention-defying torture methods if they were being applied to its own citizens. The effect is sickening. “Zero Dark Thirty” erroneously implies that the American military are no longer using such torture methods against its prisoners of war. No doubt the film’s script went through considerable editing at the hands of U.S. officials interested in putting a fresh face on the war crimes its military commits on a minute-to-minute basis in black sites and off-shore prisons.

The narrative focus shifts to Maya’s bureaucratic struggles within the CIA to pursue leads toward locating Osama bin Laden. Maya has a taste for bloody revenge. Jessica Chastain walks a fine line in developing Maya’s tunnel vision. The actress builds in every beat of introspection, self-discovery and game-faced attitude for her rapidly maturing character. Maya’s progression as an arrow of the State acts as the film’s narrative hook that Kathryn Bigelow uses to distinguish “Zero Dark Thirty” from the “Black Hawk Down”-styled action movie a male director would have surely gravitated toward. That’s not to say however that Bigelow doesn’t pay off on her movie’s suspense-laden conquest of the Pakistan compound where Osama bin Laden was “discovered” hiding.                

There are plot holes. The film takes for granted that Osama bin Laden was responsible for 9/11 despite the fact that no proof to the allegation was ever provided. Bin Laden vigorously stood by his claim that he had no part in the 9/11 attacks. The movie also conveniently skirts the assertion that it would have been judicious for Osama bin Laden to have been arrested and brought to trial where his testimony could have provided a wealth of insight into the inner workings of Al Qaeda. As for the military’s unconscionable decision to dump Bin Laden’s body into the ocean, no explanation would ever suffice anyway.             

Nonetheless, “Zero Dark Thirty” succeeds as military procedural and as a gritty character study. It comes complete with a military operation represented with all of its incumbent imperfection. The film’s greatest achievement is that it doesn’t glorify its subject. The audience is left to ponder the lasting effects of what they have witnessed, and wonder how they personally would respond to the torture America loves to use against its “enemies.” CV

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