I don’t think there’s been a film I’ve waited for this year with more trepidation and hope than Zero Dark Thirty.  It comes at the end of a triumphant year in every corner and genre of film. Looper and Prometheus reinvented sci-fi, Joss Whedon donned pistols and came to town with a vengeance, Spielberg tackled arguably our greatest president, Tom Hooper endeavored to put into film one of the most monumental works of literature, Nolan finished his Dark Knight Trilogy, and Quentin Tarantino somehow, by the grace of some blessed muse, produced Django Unchained.  After this rising pantheon of titanic films, Zero Dark Thirty shocked me.  It served as a solemn reminder that when films claim to tell the truth about pivotal moments in history – especially controversial moments that involve people we can still praise and blame – when films ask of their audience difficult questions, they need to first ask themselves what ends they serve and by what means.

I believe this movie scuttled itself across the back of its single opening sentence:

“Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events”

The screen fades to black and the weight of that line is impressed on us by thirty seconds of conversation recorded during the 9/11 attacks.  I think about this now, and I wonder what Kathryn Bigelow meant by the horror of those voices.  She certainly used a powerful tool upon her audience, however, it troubles me in the light of the controversy surrounding the truth of the film that she used this trauma as exactly that – a tool.

A thoroughly ambiguous character.

A thoroughly ambiguous character.

At the time, when I assumed that the film was telling me truths, that recording bothered me only in and of itself.  It provided the seed of evidence for how and why the American people came to accept torture as a means to an end.  With Maya, it demonstrates how the national consciousness mantled a single man with so much of our pride and our hate and our self doubt.   Jessica Chastain plays Maya brilliantly in her brittle strength and surprising vulnerability.  We watch her grow from a woman who flinches, who, not knowing anything about anything, wears a suit to torture sessions, to the most single minded and domineering character of the film.  Maya knows that she can only end her obsession with its fulfillment and she’s willing to swallow the costs of it, the unsure moral decisions, the loneliness of singular vision.  She can’t leave the path she’s on, she can only negotiate the road so that she hopefully doesn’t stray into dogmatic hate, or a tragic mistake, as her friend Jessica does.  With Maya, the film asks many questions about us.  Why do we blame a single person for so many deaths when so many people deserve that blame?  What moral standards are we willing to give up to reach that person?  What do we gain by destroying him in return for those standards and what, if anything, serves as a basis for satisfaction?

Perhaps one of the most tense scenes in any movie this year.

Perhaps one of the most tense scenes in any movie this year.

Before I had reasons to doubt its sincerity, I thought the film, in almost every way, was what it should have been.  The operation scene was tense and weary and real.  I white knuckled the seat for twenty minutes as SEAL Team 6 breached the compound and tasted the bitter irony of what most people call “a lightning operation”.  Zero Dark Thirty asks necessary and brilliant questions.  Now I believe we can return some of those same questions to the film itself.

A note about Truth.  Normally I hold facts and Truth at arms length.  Normally, actually, I think facts get in the way of Truth.  However films that make a statement about real people for their actions by which we are to judge them are beholden, finally, to fact.  These are real lives that we’re talking about.  While it might be years before people know the real events behind the film (or never) recently the CIA issued a letter disputing the accuracy of the movie.  This throws the film into a suspicious light and the mere weight of this light cracks the foundations of Zero Dark Thirty’s claims.  Because the film makes such a strong claim that it is, indeed, based on the factual events of the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, and because in the course in the film we blame or praise the real people involved in the operation, I believe Bigelow commits a fallacy in the name of the worthy questions she means to ask.

I can’t know what actually happened that night at zero dark thirty so that I can weigh the film against fact.  But I’m also convinced that Kathryn Bigelow can’t know what happened.  She claims that she does and here is the crux of the matter.  The film, by making claims it can’t support, raises moral questions that it itself falls to.  Bigelow makes a fundamentally irresponsible choice to provide our feelings of justice or injustice with characters we assume reference real people.  If no one knows who took part in the operation, who we have to thank or blame, then the movie shouldn’t make such a claim to truth.  I would have hoped, in the face of such controversy, it would have assumed a more humble attitude.  I would have hoped even more that if the film asks us to examine ourselves, what we’re really willing to do in the name of revenge or national pride or justice, it would have examined itself first.  What is a film willing to do to make a moral stand?  That might be worthy of another film, more sure of its facts.

It might have all been different, but for that shattering little phrase of the opening.  I don’t think we’ll ever know all of the people who really can claim part of the responsibility for Osama Bin Laden’s death.  At the very least, we owe them Truth, and if we can’t give that, then our silence.

My Score: 6.5

Written By Nick

Nick is a man obsessed with all things related to film. From the most obscure to the very popular, he’s seen it all and hopes to one day turn his obsession into a career that makes a lot of money so he can buy a monkey, a bulldog, and a full size Batman suit.

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the author

Nick is a man obsessed with all things related to film. From the most obscure to the very popular, he's seen it all and hopes to one day turn his obsession into a career that makes a lot of money so he can buy a monkey, a bulldog, and a full size Batman suit.

  • Ries

    Words cannot describe my hatred for this movie. lol

  • AlexH

    I’m definitely going to see this movie, but I’m already a bit skeptical for a few reasons. The main reason I won’t get into here, because it’s unrelated to the topic of movies, but the others I will gladly express…

    I saw this director’s previous military drama/action film, The Hurt Locker, and being a combat veteran myself who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, I was absolutely offended. It is inadvisable for a mere civilian to make a movie about a war that is currently ongoing because the veterans of that conflict are going to pick it apart. Obviously, as a civilian the director cannot be expected to make a movie that is totally accurate both technically and tactically. But at the very least the veterans of that conflict should be able to expect the director not to spit in their faces and call it a compliment. There are a few scenes in The Hurt Locker in which Bigelow attempts to express the awesome courage of the Army EOD personnel not by showing them being courageous, but by showing other soldiers being cowards. Sure, if you’re being nonchalant in a combat zone where everyone else is crying in a puddle of their own fear-piss, you look brave by comparison. But that depiction is not only insanely disrespectful to other soldiers, but it is also just plain old poor story telling. How inept do you have to be as an action/drama director to only show that a character is courageous by showing another as cowardly?

    This makes me a bit unsure about Bigelow’s abilities as a director of military actions dramas. But, I am a merciful god, so I will see Zero Dark Thirty and give her one more chance to not offend me.

  • Ries

    I’m an active duty Marine. Take it from me – this movie will offend you. I almost walked out. Thank you for your service.

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  • in this part you’ve written: “The screen fades to black and the weight of that line is impressed on us by thirty seconds of conversation recorded during the 9/11 attacks. I think about this now, and I wonder what Kathryn Bigelow meant by the horror of those voices.”

    the way you’ve written this, it’s as if we have heard the voices and know what bigelow said regarding the “horror of those voices.” but you haven’t old us yet what she said. can you clarify that? tell us what she said?

    Also, this feels more like an essay instead of a review. i’m not saying that’s a bad thing. i love reading and writing essays. i graded them for 25 years, so i better be “okay” with them. were you setting out to make it more of an essay, or did it gravitate to that unintentionally.

    it’s a very strong piece of writing with plenty of emotions wrapped around it. occasionally, you’re discussing the film as if it’s a documentary instead of what it really is – entertainment. i think you and most of us would prefer to sit down to watch the real story, what really happened, but that’s not possible. instead, we just have “zero dark thirty.” and because of that, we have to look at this for what it is – entertainment – instead of a documentary.

  • I also hated how unrealistic Hurt Locker was – on many levels. But Zero Dark Thirty is a much different film and really doesn’t have much combat in it, except for the end which is nicely shot, just not terribly exciting.

  • I don’t understand why everyone thinks the ending of this is amazing. It’s boring. There’s no danger to the Seal team ever. I don’t get how you were “white-knuckling the seat”. I also don’t understand how people have an issue with the torture stuff in the beginning of the film but here in there end when we sneak into Pakistan and raid a house that we don’t know who’s in it with kill orders and they basically kill off every unarmed man in the building why that’s ok. I’m not taking a stand on if that should happen or not, just saying all the people who complain about the torture and then not the ending or say the ending is good regardless of the torture don’t make sense to me. The controversy on this movie is interesting and stems from the based on true accounts line, but there have been plenty of movies sold as documentaries that have come out as being setup – remember the Michael Moore backlash?

    I liked the film, I thought it was too long and needs about an hour cut out of it, but still entertaining enough for me.

  • Michael

    I agree Alex. It’s a dangerous thing for citizens to try and make comments on the lives of military personnel. It takes a mighty director to do so without needlessly offending people. I think Bigelow in particular runs into fault because she directs like a reporter. When you see her films, you think, ‘this director meant to portray what really happened.’ With other films, like Saving Private Ryan, you know that its a film. Something offensive lives in her style of directing.

    But yeah, give it a chance. Tell me what you think.

  • Michael

    I meant that I wonder what Bigelow intended by using the sound clip. I agree that some films are entertainment, but Bigelow marketed her film, and certainly set it up to be something more than entertainment. It came off more like a documentary, or a documentary about an event that can’t have documentaries (because its secret) and therefore must be supplemented with clever fiction.

    Actually, now that I think about it, I hope the aims of film are always something a little higher than ‘entertainment.’ I love being entertained, but the films I respect most, whether they’re about fictional events or real, respect their own themes. It seemed to me that Bigelow was trying too hard to tell her audience that her movie was “True” when it wasn’t. That offended me, because she used 9/11 to gain the loyalty of her audience. If she just wanted to make another Bourne movie, or something like Inglorious Basterds, more power to her, but she marketed this as “near truth” and I’ll hold her responsible.

  • Michael

    I guess I can’t enjoy entertainment that purports to be fact. It offends me, especially with this subject matter.

    I do agree, however, the film could have lost an hour or so.

    As for my excitement, I guess that’s a personal thing. I get excited by long passages where not much happens but a feeling of expectation prevails. In the end, I think the tension comes from the potential harm to the family in the house, which I found the most disturbing violence of the film. A lot of people pass right over it without really noticing, focused on the torture of the beginning – I again agree with you. I don’t know why. When I watched it in theaters, some people even started laughing when SEAL Team 6 dropped some of the family members. I was appalled.

  • I can understand the issue with movies that say they’re based on fact and then clearly aren’t. The thing is this isn’t a documentary, and even docs claim to be 100% true and real but we know they’re not. Michael Moore had a big backlash for that, and speaking of Moore he had some great insight into Zero Dark Thirty that was very surprising to me. He actually watched the film rather than just projected his feelings onto it. I encourage you to check out his views http://www.deadline.com/2013/01/micheal-moore-on-zero-dark-thirty-controversy/ – it’s pretty interesting stuff, and I’m no fan of Moore’s for sure.

  • Ries

    It’s not a documentary, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sell itself about being a) true b) true about events that occurred in the last ten years and c) true about events that occurred in the last ten years that involved a lot of people still currently alive and very, very much capable of watching this film. I didn’t approve of this film, just like I didn’t approve of Fahrenheit 911 or The Hurt Locker. That doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to like it. Hell, it’ll probably win best picture, so you’ll have that going for your side.

    Speaking of Fahrenheit 911, Michael Moore’s article was both fascinating (his dip into feminist rant was surprising to me, somehow, but in retrospect, perhaps not so surprising) and informative. I agree with a lot of his larger points (i.e. torture is wrong, duh) but – and I can’t speak for CK’s Michael on this, but I’ll go ahead and say he and I shared a lot of opinions here – the issue of torture wasn’t even remotely what bothered us about this movie. I didn’t think the film endorsed torture in any way. It just showed it for what it was – barbaric.

    So, ultimately – I’m not going to treat this like a documentary that lied. I’m going to treat this like a film that is entertainment that sells itself as being true. Those are two different grievances, in my book, anyway, and in the end I find them both equally irritating.

  • Ries

    I don’t see how we have to look at this film as entertainment when the first words we see come across the screen announce it as being true. Trevor brought up the point that documentaries purport to be 100% truth and are usually about 5% diluted truth, but I maintain that two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because documentaries commit this “film crime,” as it were, doesn’t mean that Zero Dark Thirty gets a get out of jail free card because it wasn’t a documentary. It claimed to be a true story, and most importantly, it claimed to be a true story about events that literally just happened. Therefore, unless Bigelow and Co. have access to a lot of classified information (hint, they don’t) this film was 80-90% pure fiction. About real people, and real events, less than five years ago. That’s a big gamble, and I have to side with Michael. It felt irresponsible, and to be frank – much like Alex pointed out earlier in this thread when he was discussing the Hurt Locker – comes across as disrespectful to a lot of people who it purports to be about.

  • i tried to add this comment, but i think it got lost. if it appears twice, my bad.

    the beginning of the film says, “based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” we’ve all seen films that say things like “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events.” when we see that, we know that we’re not seeing a documentary. we know someone has “played” with reality. the only difference between those tag lines and the tag line for ZDT is that bigelow and co. talked first hand to at least two of the actual individuals who were portrayed on screen. that is not enough – for me – to say that bigelow is claiming or purporting this as a documentary. to me, this is not any different than the beginning of something like “the amityville horror” that might carry a similar tagline.

    i think that there is an emotional factor that some viewers are carrying into the film before it starts. if – stress if – that is the case, it is completely understandable because of the significance of the event. the capture/killing of bin laden ranks in national importance somewhere on the list near an attempt to assassinate a president. that also is a reason why we want to see what really happened – but there is nothing presented in the actual film that caused me to think it was presented as non-fiction. at least nothing that i noticed.

  • michael,

    help me understand something that i am having trouble with, and i want to make it clear that i’m not asking this in a challenging way. i’m not trying to debate a topic, but i am trying to understand a topic. i can admit that sometimes i can’t disagree with someone because they might have knowledge that i do not have. and that might be the case here. so – question:

    what is there about “saving private ryan” that allows you/us to “know that it’s a film”? i think i know your answer, but i don’t want to make an unfair assumption. also, after you answer that, then i’ll get to my real point with a follow-up question.

  • alex,

    first and foremost, thank you for being able to do something that i do not have the courage to do, nor have i had the chance to do it based on my age. i have a few questions, but please understand that i’m not asking these questions to challenge or debate you. i’m asking because you clearly have a defined stance on the film, and you have every right to have that stance. what i would like is to find out what brought you to hold that stance. what do you know that civilians like me do not know and could never know unless someone, like you, might share it.

    a few questions about something you wrote. first is this line: “It is inadvisable for a mere civilian to make a movie about a war that is currently ongoing because the veterans of that conflict are going to pick it apart.”

    1. in regard to “a war that is currently ongoing,” does that mean if bigelow were to have made this film five years from now, then it would be okay? is there a certain amount of time that should pass before it would be okay?

    2. as far as i can see, bigelow did not make a film about the war. she made a film about a cia operation. the film, which i saw a few hours ago and will write about soon, was roughly 85% people in offices having conversations, conducting research, and interviewing and interrogating people involved. so, for from a civilian viewpoint, this did not seem – to me – as a film about the war. even if i’m right, that doesn’t mean that you are wrong regarding your stance, but it might change things a little bit.

    3. you wrote: “Obviously, as a civilian the director cannot be expected to make a movie that is totally accurate both technically and tactically.” here’s my question: wouldn’t it be a bad thing for a director to make a film that is tactically correct? wouldn’t that possibly give information to the enemy? wouldn’t that show the enemy something about our tactics that might give them an insight about how to change their tactics in order to defeat our tactics?

    i look forward to your answers and learning from you.

  • now that i’ve seen the movie, i understand your reference about the sound clip. i think when you wrote the original review, you certainly had that sound clip in your head, and it certainly drove your response. but just like a simple typo, you forgot to explain what it was. but now i get it. thanks.

  • Michael

    I’m happy to help, even if my explanation is poor. I make a distinction between films that are meant to be taken as films and films that pose as documentaries. The film “Saving Private Ryan”, for instance, feels like a film even though its about a real war. I think it feels this way because the Spielberg germinated a fictional story in a real circumstance and the result is that while the story is credible enough to make us believe it could have happened, it didn’t happen that way in fact (who knows?). It’s a true story and not factual. How did he let us know this? Because his soldiers are named and anonymous, because the events can be ignored in the course of history, even though during the film they feel significant to us, and because the film never hangs a statement on itself that it’s closely based on fact. I think of it like a spectrum: Saving Private Ryan is on one end – about fictional soldiers in WWII. ZDT is about some real some fictional people in murky current events. Argo, for instance, is pretty close to factual – about real people in the real, documented event (slightly tweaked).

    To me, it all comes down to intent. Spielberg wanted to tell a story. Bigelow wanted to point to current events, that implicate real still living people. These are two wildly different things.

  • Michael

    Mmmm… Well, again, I’ll disagree. I think she tried to validate the movie as something factual over and over, for instance using the statement at the opening of the film, television news on screen, real events, etc. I think when Bigelow used an audio byte from 9/11 she committed herself to telling a true story because Bigelow intended to demonstrate that you (the audience) and the characters on screen were affected by the same events. She puts you on the level of her characters to raise her questions. The effect is deliberate.

  • 1.) No, I honestly don’t think time heals all wounds, and no matter if Bigelow made the movie now or fifty years from now her depiction of soldiers would be just as offensive. The problem is her blatant disrespect and misunderstanding of our fighting men and women is much more obvious since the conflict she is attempting to depict is still ongoing and fresh in our minds. With the way she makes this movie she’d still be getting criticism from veterans for as long as Iraq/Afghanistan veterans were alive. If you want to make a movie that incorrectly depicts a conflict and the veterans of that conflict, then you’re better of waiting until all the veterans of that conflict are dead. Even still, you’re not likely to make a good movie.

    2.) Zero Dark Thirty is as much a film about war as Margin Call is a film about banking. You don’t see a single bank in Margin Call, but you do see what happens behind the scenes. Zero Dark Thirty is meant to be a behind the scenes depiction of war and how wars are determined. Problem is, Bigelow has proven to be incapable of making an accurate war movie about events that are quite public, so it goes without saying she would likely fail at making a war movie about events that are “hush hush”

    3.) Yes and no… Some aspects of combat are pretty universal, meaning any soldier from any nation with any experience would understand them. Those are things like taking cover, providing covery fire, and using angle’s of attack… Then there are the things that are somewhat specific to a few units, like an Australian peel maneuver which is a specialized method of breaking contact with the enemy. I’ve seen this maneuver in some movies, but it’s never shown with such detail that anyone could derive the exact method from the movie. It does, however, lend the film a bit of tactical accuracy that other films lack, thus setting it above its peers…

    Furthermore, whenever I bring up the need for tactical/technical accuracy in war movies I’m always told by at least one civilian that they don’t care about accuracy to reality in war movies, they merely want to be entertained. In one way I agree, entertainment is the primary concern. But in another way, some of the most tactically and technically accurate war movies are also the most entertaining, even to the civilian audience. Proving that technical and tactical accuracy makes a movie more entertaining, even if you’re not quite sure what about the film makes it so accurate. People respond to realism, even if they don’t have any first hand experience in the matter. Name your top three favorite war films and I bet they’re in my top ten list of most accurate war films.

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  • thanks very much for such a detailed reply. i’m going to work backwards and start with 3.

    3. yes, i agree, make it real. if the audience doesn’t care about realism, then go ahead and make it real, as long as it doesn’t take away from the story. it’s like theater, if you’re up on stage and you forget your lines, but you know “sort of” what to say, just say something similar because the audience does not know what you’re going to say, so if you say the wrong thing, they won’t know. so in a war movie, if it is real or not, we won’t know. you’ll know, but not the civilians.

    2. about bigelow – should we be looking at her or should we be focusing on mark boal, the writer? she is directing the film and making adjustments, but boal wrote the story. boal is a journalist who was embedded with the troops for a long time, which is how “the hurt locker” came to be. he wrote a story about one particular soldier and his experiences with explosive (no pun intended) situations. so boal wrote about what he witnessed, but of course he made adjustments for the sake of the movie and crafting a story for a 2-hour audience. i enjoyed “the hurt locker,” but i’m also one of those mere civilians who might not know what would or would not happen. so here are two films directed by bigelow that you despise, but both also written by boal. maybe your dislike should aimed at him. bigelow is just hired to put his story on film.

    1A. if time does not make it okay to make a war film, then are you feeling that no war film should ever be made?

    1B. you referred to bigelow’s “disrespect” and “misunderstanding” to soldiers. my interpretation of that could be that a “misunderstanding” might be accidental, but “disrespect” is either intentional, knowing and not caring, or both. by using “disrespect,” of which do you feel bigelow is guilty? so you think she intentionally did something that you feel is wrong or do you feel she might have known something was wrong but went ahead with with it because it made for a better film?

    as for my favorite three war films, that’s a great question. the only problem is what qualifies as a war film. for example, my first choice would likely be “the great escape,” but that – to me – is not so much about the war as it is about one event that took place during the war. so i’m going to skip that and instead give you full metal jacket, apocalypse now, and the deer hunter.

    and your top three?

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