Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bigelow Slighted for Zero Dark Thirty? Nat's Take

Post Oscar-nods, the media collectively sighed over "slights." These included everything from the inane (really, you thought McBongo was going to get a nod for Magic Mike?) to the clueless (if the Academy hasn't winked at Nolan for Batman Begins or Dark Knight or freaking Memento, Dark Knight Rises didn't have a prayer; and The Avengers nomination was never gonna happen) to the I'm apparently the only one in the world who saw that coming: Kathryn Bigelow didn't get a director nod for Zero Dark Thirty.

Upon first seeing press for the film, I lamented that she'd become the "war chick" and would get pigeonholed or passed over for recognition because of her sticking to genre. I might have been the only person to think that. I may also be the only person in the world who thinks she doesn't deserve a nod for Zero Dark Thirty.

Some perspective: I really respect The Hurt Locker. I can't say I enjoyed it because she did an excellent job at portraying that soulless dead inside compelled to stare at the freezer section tic gained from the intense pressure of almost dying on a regular basis. That movie was worthy of an Oscar.

Different perspective: I remember exactly where I was when Obama announced that bin Laden had been killed. Exactly. I don't remember where I was when the planes hit on 9/11--that day was a confusing mishmash of classes and second-hand reports.

The first few minutes of Zero Dark Thirty are some of the most chilling on film: a completely black screen with 9/11 phone calls playing, static-y, terrified, helpless, pleading . . . And then we're immediately tossed into a torture scene. That's problematic on a lot of levels, the most immediate is that the juxtaposition seems an immediate endorsement of the use of torture in interrogation  a "they did that so we can do this" logic that is at once childish and extraordinarily dangerous. The film never takes an explicit position against torture--the closest it gets is to say, with an eye roll, that the torture has to stop because the Obama administration says so.

But that's not why the film is problematic.

A minor note for the movie as a whole but a major strike against Bigelow for director is the inclusion of title slides that populate the last half of the film with "pithy" titles like "Tradecraft" and "Canaries." The titles do nothing to further the film and only pull catchphrases from the dialogue immediately after the title, like a freshman trying to take up more room on a page by inserting titles. And, while not furthering the film, they actively work to snap the viewer *out* of the film. So any tension or emotion built is immediately deflated.

That could lead to a rollercoaster of a viewing but, unfortunately, the film never builds much tension or emotion. The film lacks emotional heft of any sort. There is none of that complicated emotion that came with learning that bin Laden was dead and SEALS had killed him. The lead, Maya played as well as can be by Jessica Chastain, does not engage the viewer. I understand the years long toil to produce even the tiniest smidgen of a lead. I understand that the job of the CIA was not terribly exciting. I understand that. Really. I do. But, this isn't a documentary, as is evidenced by the fact that the screenplay was almost finished before bin Laden was killed. And the "boring" doesn't play out well because it's not well done. I'm on board with procedural films but Zero Dark Thirty is also not about procedure, or even the lack thereof. What the film needed to do, if you'll excuse my armchair directing, was to build the psychological drama within Maya. The film so desperately wants to show that she's a woman obsessed--that she's lost friends! even (although we don't really see these friendships)--but the dryness of the script just leads me to believe that her job is similar to mine: research with no life/death consequences. I know that's not the truth and Bigelow needed to show me how Maya's job is more important (it is) and how, as an obsessed woman, this plight ate away at her soul, psyche, emotions, wardrobe, something . . . anything.

But it doesn't.

By the time we get the dark, vague, strange-angled shot of a dead bin Laden, I was so violently bored that I didn't care. I certainly felt none of the emotion I felt on the historical night. I felt nothing when Maya opens the body bag to verify the identity. I felt nothing when Maya cries. I felt nothing other than anger that Bigelow got it so wrong. While I could easily argue that it's just too soon, Zero Dark Thirty is simply too little.

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