Sunday, January 20, 2013

A New Kind of War Film: Zero Dark Thirty

I had tears in my eyes throughout most of Zero Dark Thirty.

Mind you, I’m ill (keeping away from everyone, though), and so I might be a little more prone to emotionalism.  And I left the film utterly exhausted because of that.  But the film as a whole pained me to no end.

This is less the fault of the film as it is the fault of the ideology I bring to the film.  I am a pacifist, and I am opposed to revenge and this film is, no matter what else it is, certainly a film about revenge.  So to spend two and a half hours seeing a Federal assassin track down her victim—even if the victim is Osama Bin Laden—is painful for me to watch.

I recognize that most others will watch this film with different eyes, and that is how it should be.  Because this is a film that will feed almost any ideology.  What you get from the film is what you came in with.  This doesn’t mean we won’t learn something about how spying works today or about war in a post-9-11 era.  But if we are opposed to torture, we can see that in this film.  If we think that any amount of cost is worth such a lofty goal, there is evidence for that in this film.

A new era of war requires a new kind of film to describe that war.  In the 40’s, war films were mostly propaganda, with the rare film showing the subtleties of personalities (Colonel Blimp).  Some aspects of war were criticized in film in the 50’s, but there is always a noble soldier for us to identify with (Paths of Glory).  In the 60’s there was quite a bit of discomfort after the Cuban Missile Crisis (Dr. Strangelove), but war was still often glorified in film (The Green Berets).   It wasn’t until the 70’s that film turned firmly against war, deconstructing the whole war film, showing it to be destructive to the soldiers and to the nation (Platoon, Apocalypse Now). 

After 9-11, though, war changed.  It is no longer nation against nation, but one nation in opposition to small enclaves of well-funded, well-organized enemies.  It requires subtlety, and the moral ground is different than it used to be.   Terrorists are horrible, but they are human beings as well, and they might even have a point.  The new war film is less ideology-heavy and more documentary style, allowing the viewer to be on the ground, seeing what we could never possibly see, giving us the experience of warfare, not an entertainment.
This was first done in a famous, amazing scene in Saving Private Ryan.   We had the opportunity to experience D-Day as it has never been seen before.  We were an allied soldier, hearing—even feeling!—the mass of bullets missile past us, seeing our comrades fall, the gore, and we feel the difficult courage it takes to keep moving up that deadly beach.  However, that scene was surrounded by a film deep in the old ideological presentation of war.

Paul Greengrass is the one who really introduces this new perspective on terrorism and war in two films: Bloody Sunday and United 93.  They are objective, documentary-style and while they give a very particular point of view, we have a sense of objectivity that we have never experienced before.  We were there, we are not just viewing the tragedies so much as experiencing them as they unfold in time, seeing people’s reactions as they happen.  Yes, it is a movie trick, but it works.  We are involved in these experiences like we have never seen.  This continues with Steve McQueen’s Hunger and with Kathryn Bigalow’s  The Hurt Locker.  Yes, they are told from a certain perspective, but we are on the ground with the characters, able to judge or to applaud them as we felt.

Most of all, these films didn’t tell us how to feel, but they opened discussion.  They gave us facts, and ideas and powerful experiences that we could look at and draw our own conclusions.

In Zero Dark Thirty, Bigalow continues this, showing us not only a documentary-like view of Bin Laden’s discovery, but also showing us the heart of the United State’s war on terror.  The new war, the new spying, is less about capturing cities, but about discovering who we are at war against.  Names and locations are hidden, and even with massive amounts of technology at one’s disposal, they are almost impossible to find.  Politics also gets involved and public opinion can cut funding even in an essential operation.  Researching and the military go hand-in-hand, but it feels like the scalpel is replaced with a sledgehammer—the two approaches make for strange bedfellows.

Nevertheless, the new war has heroes.  Tenacity and courage is still what wins the day, whether a soldier or an analyst.  No matter how we feel about the proceedings, we still see Maya as a powerful person, one we admire, a force of nature.  But we see the other side as smart, and those being tortured as very human.

Despite all the torture, the bombings, the threats, the shootings, the killing of parents in front of children—we are not told how to feel about all of this.  Yes, this is a film about revenge, but not like Inglorius Basterds, where we cheer the brutal killing of Nazis and then we are slapped on the wrist for being like them.  Again, we are given a difficult, even brutal, experience, and we are emotionally impacted, but not told what to think.

At the end of the film, Maya cries.  This isn’t a spoiler, really, although it is an amazing ending of the film.  But why does she cry?  Does she cry for her colleagues who suffered so much to get to this place? Does she cry for relief because it is done?  Does she cry because the tortures and deaths were too high a cost?  Does she cry because she doesn’t know what to do with her life now?  We don’t know.  We might guess, but that is putting our experience on Chastain’s marvelous performance. 

The new kind of war film is objective, but not emotionless.  Zero Dark Thirty made me feel, in turns, frustrated, laughing, angry, excited, relieved, and outraged.  But we know the difference in this: the new war film doesn’t leave the audience clapping.  They walk out in silence, both deeply considering and deeply stunned by what they have witnessed.


  1. What a refreshingly sober marco-perspective take on 'Zero Dark Thirty' ... One person's revenge is another's justice, I suppose. But whatever one calls it, revenge/justice IS ugly here. I think that those shots of children in the compound (like the one you captured above) SHOULD leave the viewer a bit haunted (i.e., are we just perpetuating a cycle?) As an American (who knew a couple of people in the WTC, as if that really makes a difference), I admit I felt a bit gratified living that ending with the perspective of the Navy seals, and yet a bit guilty for feeling gratified. ... What did you think about the pacing and the range of Chastain's performance?

  2. I think that Chastain is now my favorite "new" performer. Between this, Take Shelter and Tree of Life, she shows a range that is rarely seen, and completely owns each of her characters. She is the most consistent performer of the recent new set, above Fassbender or Lawrence. She sold every scene, I thought.