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New film: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

As with “The Hobbit” a few weeks ago, this is a movie that people are going to watch (or not even bother to watch) and evaluate for completely different reasons, with the quality of the movie not necessarily being foremost in a lot of people’s minds. For that reason, the column is broken into thematic sections.


For starters, the film depicts torture – or “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.” This has been cited as controversial but there’s nothing especially controversial about what’s shown – at least not in terms of whether or not what we see is what happened. The most extreme, sustained technique depicted, that’s subsequently used as a threat, is waterboarding. This may upset people who don’t like the idea of waterboarding or the idea that the CIA might have done this – but it’s something the CIA has admitted occurred in their interrogation sites. And it’s not a stretch to refer to it as torture, given that virtually every authority/statute in the world uses that label for that action, with the notable exception of the George W. Bush Administration during a specific time period.

By implication, what might be worse, is the “Extraordinary Rendition” program that spirited people away to unknown locations, including those locations that might have had a looser attitude towards what constituted torture. These are actions that have since resulted in CIA officers being indicted in various countries – but it isn’t really addressed in the film.

Aside from that, there are scenes of physical abuse (but nothing in the way of electrodes or surgical instruments), humiliation, food deprivation, light and noise manipulation, and confinement.

Torture as an Information Source

The other aspect of the film that is drawing criticism, related to torture, is the allegation that the film implies that these techniques were successful in producing valuable intelligence from those subjected to such treatment. But that’s also an odd allegation as the film doesn’t really give much of that impression at all.

The torture scenes at the start of the move have more of an effect of hardening the central character, CIA agent Maya (played by Jessica Chastain), to this extreme new world she’s entered at the start of her overseas career. They set the tone for us as an audience, and they explain the range of interrogation techniques employed. But they don’t show us much in the way of spilled facts and locations.

Without going into too much specific detail, most of the information gathered comes in snippets and in repetitive factoids from literally hundreds of sources and interrogations, most of which seem relatively ordinary by comparison. They also come from trickery and lies, and from information that simply got overlooked in files about various key figures. But there’s little if anything of any urgency depicted that comes from actual scenes of torture.

All of which leads one to believe that much of the negative feedback on this point is probably coming from people who either haven’t seen the film or who didn’t follow it very well – as the manner in which the information is triangulated and analyzed is long and drawn out, and somewhat complex. I stood outside the screening I attended as one member of the audience, who sounded generally clued in about other things, explained to the studio’s screening representative that he simply couldn’t follow where all of the intel was coming from – and I have seen other similar comments elsewhere. So perhaps that’s at least part of the problem.

Politics and the Election

The film was originally scheduled to be released before the November election, but Republican groups expressed concern (more like outrage) that it was a ploy to remind voters that President Obama had had oversight of the raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin laden, in an attempt to influence the election. The film was rescheduled to open in Los Angeles and New York in December, early enough to qualify for Academy Awards, with a wider release this week.

What’s odd about this concern is that the film barely brings Obama into the mix. At one point he’s described as a thinker, which is only offensive if one thinks that Bush wasn’t – but it isn’t delivered in that tone or context. And he’s depicted as being a hurdle to the established practices of the interrogators (i.e., by banning torture) at least as much as it is suggested that he allowed things to progress successfully. Again, I’m left doubting that many (if any) of the critics at that time had even seen the film.

The other still-brewing issue is the extent to which classified information might or might not have been made available to the filmmakers. Everybody involved has said this didn’t happen, but it’s not an accusation or question that seems likely to go away any time soon, or to produce any verifiably convincing answers, and it’s the kind of issue that will probably always be thrown around when it serves somebody’s purpose to do so.

The Plot and Pace of the Film

This is a long film, clocking in at 2 hours and 37 minutes – although that’s still shorter than other recent releases, including “The Hobbit” and “Django Unchained.” But it’s time well spent in terms of giving a solid impression of the nature of what was an extremely long and slow moving investigation. It’s hard to imagine the film having the gravitas it does if it had been compressed into a more bladder-friendly running time.

To some extent it reminds me of “Lincoln,” in the sense that many people are likely to be expecting something else from the film – especially if they’ve seen the previews that focus on the raid on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The majority of this film is spent examining the process that unfolded to get to that point, not in glorifying that raid – and it’s not for audiences who just want to see guns, shooting, and extreme action.

At its core, it’s the story of Maya, who is brought into a CIA investigative team who are already engaged in the hunt for post 9/11 information and the search for Osama bin Laden. She a smart individual with knowledge of the language and culture, who begins to see things in ways some of the others around her don’t.

For those who have followed the intelligence discussions in recent years, there’s been a recurring theme that the major agencies and their systems were designed during, and better suited to, the Cold War. More intelligence analysts had knowledge of Eastern Block countries and languages, and we started out with relatively few solid assets on the ground in the Middle East and in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although the film doesn’t make much of this, it’s hinted at in some of the earliest conversations between Maya and her teammates.

But the process is a long slog – which is why it’s odd that people might think that torture somehow suddenly produced all the answers in some convenient fashion. This is a film that gives what seems to be a detailed and authentic look at the way such investigations work and how mind numbing and soul destroying they can be, especially as years pass, administrations change, and priorities shift.

Having said all that, it’s incredibly good and powerful in that depiction. It’s probably my favorite movie with military or conflict-themed subject matter since “Blackhawk Down,” a film which, in turn, I think is one of the very best war movies ever made, perhaps even the best. There’s nothing here that ever feels fake or lacking in credibility, which speaks to the extraordinary level of attention to detail in the entire production.

The acting is all solid, especially from Chastain, with strong supporting performances that are too numerous to catalog. It looks authentic, feels authentic, and never lets up in its gradual and steady build to the ending that we already know is coming.

[On a side note, Bigelow and her writing partner Mark Boal, had originally intended to tell the story of the failed and much earlier attack on Tora Bora. However, as they were progressing with that script, the ultimate raid occurred and the Tora Bora attack no longer seemed relevant – or at least immediately less relevant and compelling. And so they started again, building on some of the same groundwork but heading in the new direction.]

The Direction and the Academy Awards

All of which should give you the impression that the direction is impressive. This is Kathryn Bigelow’s follow up theatrical project to “The Hurt Locker” which won her an Academy Award for directing three years ago.

Since yesterday, there has been even more buzz about the film, largely concentrated around the fact that Bigelow wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for “Zero Dark Thirty,” despite being an early favorite for a nomination. Some are suggesting a backlash to the political aspects of the film but that doesn’t really fit very well and it implies a far greater level of organization among Oscar voters than probably exists. Besides, if one wanted to distance oneself from the content of the film and its story, it would make more sense to avoid a Best Picture nomination and a Best Screenplay nomination than a nomination for the person who made it all look so good.

The other nugget that gets missed is that nominations are generally made within the branch of the Academy that addresses that particular award. So the directing nominations are made by members of the Directors Branch of the Academy and not by the general membership of the Academy (everybody gets to vote later, but not during the nomination stage). There’s an overlap there with the membership of the separate Directors Guild of America, but they are different groups with different awards programs and different nominations. And many of these same people saw fit to nominate Bigelow for the Directors Guild Award.


This is a film that held my attention, without ever letting up, from start to finish. The pacing is slow but justifiably so, in a manner that lends credence to the story that’s unfolding before us. The torture scenes are more about setting the tone and establishing the beginning of the lead character arc than to either criticize or glorify what happened and, as Bigelow herself has said, to have skipped them would have seemed like a white-washing of that part of the history of what happened. It’s superbly detailed and has a sense of authenticity that’s rarely matched in these kinds of subjects. It’s powerful, well acted, and, simply, quite brilliant.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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