Considering the substantial amount of acclaim that it has attracted, it came as a surprise to many people that Zero Dark Thirty was snubbed at this year's Academy Awards. Notwithstanding the fact that the Oscars have never been a great barometer of quality, it was interesting that one of the most highly praised films of the year should have slipped so far under the radar.
But now that the dust has settled, it's plain to see why Zero Dark Thirty was so widely overlooked. It's not the subject matter itself; the hunt for Osama bin Laden is still fresh in people's minds. It's not the fact that Kathryn Bigelow's previous film, The Hurt Locker, won Best Picture; the Academy does not always operate on the basis of it being 'someone else's turn'. It's not even the controversy surrounding its depiction of torture - a controversy which is both absurd and ill-founded. It is instead because the film is nothing like as good as people would have us believe, being one of the most distant and needlessly clinical films in recent memory.
Before we get into the substance of the review, a quick point needs to be made about Bigelow's approach as a director. Throughout her career she has been referred to as a 'macho' filmmaker; Mark Kermode has often compared her to Sam Peckinpah. The remark that is often made is that she makes films which are deeply masculine in nature; it is surprising that a film as testosterone-driven as Point Break should be helmed by a woman, and that a woman should direct so much like a man.
These are, of course, completely stupid observations. Men make many different kinds of films, not all of which are macho or overtly masculine in nature. It's like saying that Killing Them Softly and Love Story should look and feel the same because they were both made by men. Women's output varies greatly too; you couldn't find much in common between this film and The Kids Are All Right or Aeon Flux. Bigelow is as capable of making 'male' films as any other female director; it is not a question of gender, but of her wider sensibility.
There is much about Zero Dark Thirty which is admirable or timely in some way. The story about the hunt for Osama bin Laden was always going to be told at some point because of its significance in the War on Terror narrative that dominates our world. It's easy to view this film is a bookend or follow-up to the mid-2000s wave of films about 9/11, such as World Trade Center and United 93.
You can argue all you like about the merits of an American filmmaker telling this story rather than a European or any other kind of nationality. But we should at least give credit to Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal for the amount of effort and research which went into the production. The film was originally going to be about the failed attempt to capture bin Laden in 2001, with the screenplay being drastically rewritten after the events of May 2011. The level of detail in the film's recreation of the American intelligence services and their locations puts to bed any accusations of Oscar-baiting opportunism or flag-waving populism.
Much of the coverage surrounding the film has focussed on its depiction of torture. The film opens with our main character Maya (Jessica Chastain) witnessing one of her colleagues torturing a man to get information about a future terrorist attack. We see numerous different techniques employed, including solitary confinement, audio torture and the infamous waterboarding, accompanied by Maya's flinching and Dan's frustration at the man's refusal to divulge anything meaningful.
The extent of such scenes had led many commentators to accuse the film of having a pro-torture stance. Naomi Wolf went so far as comparing Bigelow to Triumph of the Will director Leni Riefenstahl, calling the film "amoral" and branding Bigelow as "torture's handmaiden." Such ridiculously hyperbolic comments presume that we cannot depict something without having a moral perspective on it, i.e. that we cannot show a shoe without having an opinion as to whether or not shoes are a good thing. The film depicts these scenes in clinical detail while informing us that the information that ultimately caught bin Laden was not obtained by these means. All we are left with is our emotional reaction, which is one of appropriate and justifiable revulsion.
Unfortunately, this clinical depiction of torture also illuminates the central flaw with Bigelow's film. The problem with Zero Dark Thirty is not its depiction of torture, or the means by which the filmmakers obtained their information, or even whether the version of events we are seeing is entirely accurate. The problem is that it gives us no reason to care about what we are seeing. Without any kind of context, about the War on Terror or the ground wars fought in its name, the film does not serve any kind of purpose or make any kind of sense. Put simply, it doesn't really have a point.
Zero Dark Thirty takes the procedural drama to an absurd extreme, so that it is all procedure and no drama. Boal's script is essentially one long exposition dump, with lots of convoluted information relayed to us so coldly, that when someone raises their voice, it's as much out of relief as it is surprise. The film makes no effort to let us in, either by allowing us to bond with the characters or by showing the gravitas of the situations in which they find themselves. Everything is told rather than shown, and as a result the film has about as much tension as a sub-par Agatha Christie novel.
It is more than possible to make exciting dramatic films based on reported accounts of real-life events. All The President's Men worked so well because it put the audience in the minds of Woodward and Bernstein; we grew to like them as we struggled to piece together the same pieces of information they uncovered. Alternatively, the huge amount of information in Michael Herr's Dispatches was brilliantly shaped into the gripping dramas of Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. While Boal's credentials as a war reporter are not in doubt, he is by no means a great screenwriter; he cannot translate facts into storytelling, or turn important figures into real people.
The characters in Zero Dark Thirty are all either deeply unlikeable or hollow shells. We are surrounded by a series of intelligent, brilliant individuals who are so focussed that they are warped, and they are given no human or real-world characteristics to endear them to us. Jessica Chastain is a terrifically charismatic actress, but Maya is such a blank slate; her level of detachment, or lack of overt emotion, borders on the sociopathic. The film is clearly meant to be about her obsessive drive to get bin Laden, but she's just so flat in her trajectory; we don't care whether she lives or dies, and her tears at the end are a desperate plea for sympathy that has not been earned.
There are ways of making films which are clinical or cold in construction which do have a genuine emotional impact - Stanley Kubrick did it all the time. Even if you weren't entirely bonded to the characters in, say, Full Metal Jacket, the film had enough striking imagery and intellectual nuance to keep you interested. Zero Dark Thirty has no interesting insights about the war, the US, terrorism or bin Laden. It takes no side and has almost no plot: as Roger Ebert put it in his positive review, "the plot is Maya thinks she is right, and she is".
Having said all this, the final set-piece involving the killing of bin Laden is generally well-executed (no pun intended). The fact that we often cannot see what is going on is largely intentional, putting us in the circumstances of the soldiers who have a plan of attack but also have to think on their feet. The hand-held camerawork goes overboard during the helicopter crash but is largely fine elsewhere, and the sequence as a whole is very well-paced. The scene's success, however, is a pyrrhic one, because it makes us wish the whole film had been like that.
Zero Dark Thirty is a massively overrated film which fails to live up to both the form of The Hurt Locker and its own hype. Once all its controversies are stripped away, the end result is pedestrian, flat and unmemorable, with no three-dimensional characters, poor writing and very little tension. Its biggest crime, aside from squandering Chastain, is that it is really dull - though at least this comes from ineptitude rather than contempt for the audience. It isn't torture to sit through, but that's about the kindest thing you can say.