Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

January 16, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty a worthy thriller

Andy Stuckey, Ryan Maddux
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — This week, we continue our look at the Oscar nominated pictures with director Katheryn Bigalow’s thriller, Zero Dark Thirty (R).

Based on the actual events that led up to the killing of Osama bin Laden, Jessica Chastain stars as an obsessive CIA agent who goes to great lengths to ensure the success of her mission.

Ryan: For what it sets out to accomplish, Zero Dark Thirty is an extremely well-executed film. “For what it sets out to accomplish” might be seen as an unfair qualifier but this is a movie with a very specific take on the War on Terror. Normally, we see events of this nature from the top down, but Zero Dark Thirty, with Maya being the center of attention, we see events from the bottom up.

From the frame of reference, we see Zero Dark Thirty as not being a political film or necessarily pushing a certain kind of agenda. In fact, its objectivity becomes a coldness that permeates much of the film. But this detachment, while serving the film well in how we perceive events mainly through Maya’s perspective, also prevents the moviegoers (at least from my perspective) from falling in love with the movie.

Andy: My instinct upon leaving the theatre from watching Zero Dark Thirty was that much of the perceived politicization of this movie was somewhat unfair. As Ryan says, the movie is so much from the point of view of Chastain’s Maya and her singular focus on her mission, that the political statement seems to be lost in her analytical fanaticism. However, when a movie starts with a black screen and haunting audio of 911 calls from Sept. 11, then goes directly to a scene featuring detainee being water boarded, by a U.S. intelligence agent,  it is hard not to see a political message.  What that message actually is becomes complicated, as the scenes of torture dissipate in the film’s second half.

Ryan: The issue of torture in how it plays out in Zero Dark Thirty is inescapable. So here goes. I do not think the film blatantly advocates or endorses the use of torture (or enhanced interrogations) to gather information from a detainee but I also do not think this notion is crystal clear within the narrative framework of the movie. There’s more “gray” to this question than how it’s being portrayed in the media. In fact one could make the case that the use of torture is tolerated by Maya and her counterparts simply because it was another way to gather information. The analytical nature of Zero Dark Thirty should not be underestimated.  The detached tone of the film stems mainly from the analytical side to this intelligence-gathering world that we are immersed in. We live in the age of information but more-to-the-point we live in a world where everything from a presidential election to a baseball player’s career can be quantified and correlated simply by numbers. One could make the case that the War on Terror (at least from Zero Dark Thirty’s angle) is just another use of quantitative analysis.

Andy: Clearly, Maya’s perspective on torture is that as long as it is allowed, she will use it as a tool to gather information.  The reliability and frequency of this information, compared to other methods of intelligence gathering, is the gray area that the movie leaves unclear. What is clear is that bin Ladin is not found until the principle players are no longer engaging in acts of torture. With this reading, it could be argued that the film is arguing that there are more effective ways of preventing terrorist threats than torturing detainees.

What should not be understated about Zero Dark Thirty is its ability to draw the viewer into a thrilling, suspenseful experience, even though you know how things are going to end up. The movie’s conclusion is barely even history, it is so contemporary. So being able to play the audience into a fervor watching events that they heard about on the news just two years ago is truly a testament to Bigelow’s expert film-making. Furthermore, Jessica Chastain’s hyper-focused performance is clearly one of the best of the year.

Strong film-making, great acting, and the intellectual heft to start nuanced debate about what America stands for all add up to a movie worthy of the attention its receiving.

Final grade: A-.