Monday, December 24, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty: Getting Obsessed and Staying Obsessed

The first time I saw Zero Dark Thirty, from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who had also collaborated on The Hurt Locker (read my post on that film here), my initial reaction to ZDT's journalistic approach to the hunt for Usama bin Laden was that it was cool and dispassionate, both in its rendering and its effect. In The Hurt Locker we also had an action thriller that was visceral and "muscular" (a word Bigelow uses to describe filmmaking she admires, such as Sam Peckinpah's in The Wild Bunch, which she has said caused a "paradigm shift" in her concept of filmmaking when she first saw it in the mid-'70s--it was refreshingly linear, she shared at a screening of the film in 2009, since she had been making art films).  Hurt Locker was also steeped in the war in Iraq and informed by journalistic research, but the story, at heart, was a largely fictional one of character; we came away with a profound sense of what made Sgt. James (Jeremy Renner) tick, if you will, and how the IED detail impacted all of the characters.  And it was powerfully affecting.  In contrast, ZDT is the story of an event.  Even though there was a real Maya figure who, Boal has asserted, both pursued the courier lead and identified UBL in the body bag (more on her real story here), the filmmakers necessarily had to take dramatic liberties to create a central  protagonist.  And although Bigelow has said that she tried to avoid casting highly recognizable main players for the sake of verisimilitude, she's also savvy enough to know that she needed a good actor who was also a star for the lead.

After that first viewing of ZDT, I came away thinking of T.S. Garp, the novelist character at the center of John Irving's 1976 work of fiction, The World According to Garp.  The narrator quotes Garp: "Tell me anything that’s ever happened to you...and I can make the details better than they were….If it’s sad—even if it’s very sad—I can make up a story that’s sadder."  Garp's point being that fiction has to be "better than life," with the implication that fiction, which is the "act of imagining truly," is far more powerful than "all the recollected traumas of our unmemorable lives."  I felt that Bigelow and Boal's stated intention (expressed at a Q & A post screening on 12/11/12) to maintain journalistic objectivity (some have called it "moral ambiguity") in ZDT actually handicapped the film.  I found it hard to emotionally connect with Maya and her quest, making the film a far less affective experience for me than Hurt Locker (for an eloquent discussion of a similar reaction to the film's lack of "narrative," see Rachel Wilson's essay in policymic).  Richard Brody in The New Yorker refers to ZDT's "willful rejection of the inner life...a posturing stance of cool, an attitude of no attitude" that he sees as being "actually filled with attitudinizing judgment."  (After reading his essay, I couldn't help but recall the cool posturing of Bigelow's Sirkian 1982 film The Loveless, co-written and co-directed with Monty Montgomery and starring Willem Dafoe.)

(Warning--spoilers ahead!)  Of course, to reiterate, ZDT isn't about Maya, at least ostensibly; it's about "the greatest manhunt in history." And so Maya remains a cipher; all we know is that she was recruited by the CIA straight out of high school (far too unique a point to have been left unelaborated); she doesn't seem to have any friends, at least in the past; and she is, at the end, a tabula rasa with no idea where to go or perhaps even who and what she is.  What we do know about her can be summed up from another John Irving novel, 1981's The Hotel New Hampshire:  Maya's credo, like that of Irving's character Iowa Bob, seems to be, "You've got to get obsessed and stay obsessed."  At the very end, when Maya is seated alone on the plane and she doesn't know where to go, we finally gain some access to an interior self--filled, it would appear, with shock, relief, sadness, alienation, and perhaps most frightening, uncertainty.  In that moment Maya is made flesh. It is a remarkable scene, in which Chastain is transcendent, and it is a perfect ending for the movie.

In the Los Angeles Times the other day, there was an article in the Calendar section, a Directors Roundtable (link to video here) accompanied by a photo of six of this year's major directors, and Bigelow was the only woman; she was dressed in a suit jacket like the men--and like Maya when she first enters the enhanced interrogation chamber. I can't help but wonder how Maya's dogged and singular quest might also be an allegory for Bigelow's own experience as a female director, given her oft-stated longing for a time when the gender modifier will no longer be used. (And speaking of obsessed, Bigelow worked for about a year to help develop a camera that could shoot her vision of the stunning opening shot of Strange Days.)  Also echoing Maya, Bigelow has been conspicuously private about her personal life and the nature of her relationship with Mark Boal. 

Despite the film's handicap in striving to objectively as possible dramatize real events, Bigelow's directing prowess, particularly in the last third of film, makes the film soar.  The raid on the Abottabad compound, which was reportedly edited from approximately 40 hours of film, is both affecting and thrilling.  The last third of the film is genius, perhaps even more so for the dogged build of the first two thirds, which mimics the methodical, relentless efforts of the CIA operatives.  And it should be said that Mark Boal, in collaboration with Bigelow, did an amazing job of researching and structuring the material, even managing to inject some humor into the grim raid ("Usama?"  "Usama?").

ZDT is sui generis in the sense that it is neither a documentary, nor a work of fiction, nor a mere dramatization, but a hybrid--what other critics have termed journalistic filmmaking.  It's interesting that Argo, a dramatization of a real political event, came out in the same year.  The films couldn't be more different.  Argo is a deftly made, highly satisfying mainstream Hollywood entertainment.  But as much as I enjoyed it, it seems old hat next to ZDT. ZDT may not be as powerful a film as The Hurt Locker, but it breaks generic ground.

ZDT also has an inherent gravitas because of its roots in 9/11, its function as a chronicle, and also because of the respectful zeal and integrity of its filmmakers (despite what the senators contend).  Bigelow and Boal are a muscular duo.  I believe that their Zero Dark Thirty is destined to become a classic.  And I look forward to Bigelow's return to the realm of the truly imagined, where emotion and soul reside.

Here's the trailer for ZDT:

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1 comment:

  1. It is destined to become a classic. However, the 'Usama, Usama!' scene wasn't a humorous injection... That's exactly how ST6 got him to poke his head around the corner. It's in the documented accounts. And Boal had it nailed into the script before the 'No Easy Day' book released.

    Great review.