Zero Dark Thirty – Katherine Bigelow takes out Osama bin Laden. (Film Review)

A film maker as talented as Katherine Bigelow is absolutely aware that when you weave a fiction in film you work from point of view, and to give the role of torturer to the hero in the film with whom we don’t just sympathize, but either want to “be” or “fuck” is going to cause trouble. She can hardly claim to be “showing” something without judgement when you have our second most sympathetic character in the film applying torture techniques.


However, if you are going to make the sort of film Katherine Bigelow makes, there was no other course than to give the role of torturer to the hero, precisely because she does want to refrain from judgement. It was the only role that could administer these actions while leaving the space open for discussion. If the torturer was a secondary character within the CIA about whom we felt little, his action would drive us against him (or her). And to give the role to a character we despised would be naff and against the principles of film making Bigelow wants to aspire to. I think she means it when she says the torture existed, she was just “showing” something that existed. The controversy lies in the fine line she has created between “good” and “evil” and her manipulations only extending to a certain point.


Film makers are manipulative, in a way other artists are not. Film is a manipulative medium, because of the overwhelming power of the image when combined with narrative, sound and all the other bits and pieces that go into making us “feel” while we watch a film; not to mention our passivity within the walls of film watching. For Bigalow to address this manipulation, she had to counter it to a degree. BY making us love the torturer, she removes her voice from the responsibility of the debate, but sparks it none the less.

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To say this controversy around the film is misplaced is to misread the film, I think, because the torture scenes are graphic, detailed and take up a large amount of the films time.  It is meant to shock us into a reaction and it is meant to have us talk to each other about torture. After seeing Zero Dark Thirty, my take on it lies firmly in the “torture doesn’t work” category. If there is one thing that film tells us, it is that the “intelligence” gained from torture is tenuous, the evidence non-existent and the results calamitous. They can lead to a valuable team being blown to pieces as much as they can possibly lead to Osama bin Laden. These were my opinions when I walked into the film, and the film only reinforced them, giving me the impression that would be the result for most theater goers. The intention of the film is not to support or justify torture, and to use it for these purposes is silly, because after all, it’s just a story.  Isn’t it?

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That is the other major controversy around the film. Inadvertently giving the film a good name, many Republicans have claimed the film knows too much and therefore have informed the rest of us that thought it was “just” a good film, that the film does contain information very close to what actually happened in the capturing of Osama Bin Laden. It’s not very surprising that Katherine Bigelow, a woman who performs  intense research into her film,  has, at its heart, a woman of uncompromising commitment to her research. From that perspective, the film is a little trite. It is clearly a “display of knowledge” on the part of Bigelow and Boal, often cringing under the weight of its own information. This is partly the problem with the torture scenes – it’s never made precisely clear if the torture did lead to any useful information. Boal does this to hide his lack of information in a film that is showing off about all that it (he) knows. There is so much circular talk, so much jargon, so much desk slamming, it is almost impossible to grasp the full weight of every conversation on the first screening, and that is intentional. It’s one of those films that crosses its arms in front of itself and says “Oh! Didn’t you get it?” in the most patronizing tone.


This is part of the theatrics of Boal and Bigelow that we are all entranced with, and partly why US Senators are quick to decry it as having too much information. Bigelow and Boal rely very heavily on the emperor has no clothes theory, knowing if they make a film that “looks” like it knows too much, they enjoy the associated benefits of looking like the know too much – those being,  for both, a desire to be “seen” as a genius. This film, like The Hurt Locker, reeks of “look how clever I am” and that gets a little tiresome for the audience.

However, all that bitchiness aside, Bigelow is very talented at taking these dire moments and informing them with tenderness.  The final raid scene is particularly striking for this, and makes for incredibly entertaining cinema. Jessica Chastain is as good as everyone is saying, and for a film in which we all know exactly what happens in the end, it is amazingly thrilling.  I was glued to my seat the entire time and I did enjoy the film very much.

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Oh – “Zero Dark Thirty” for those who don’t know is the military term for half past midnight.  It is the time of the raid and it is also emblematic for the entire time of darkness while they were trying to track bin Laden down.  See how much I know?