The war film genre is undergoing a transformation. The traditional war movie balanced character with story and plot. These are the classics of the genre: All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, The Dirty Dozen, Patton, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket to name a very small few. These movies had fully formed dramatic statements to make and employed warfare to transmit them to their audiences. After watching Platoon you might understand how good and evil can compete for a man’s soul. All Quiet on the Western Front explored the emptiness of jingoism. Full Metal Jacket is a case study in dehumanization.
Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt
Then came the new breed of war film. Dramatic purpose began to take a back seat to plot, and relentless story overwhelmed character development. You could almost liken movies such as Black Hawk Down, The Pianist, and Act of Valor to police procedural shows. There are efforts toward characterization in these films, but they are less about a character undergoing an evolution and more about survival or completing the mission.
Before you call me an old fogey, waving a fist and sucking on dentures, I don’t mean to say the former is better than the latter: I’m simply noting the divide in the genre.
Kathryn Bigelow, the premier war-film director of the day, now has each foot squarely in both camps. In her 2008, Oscar-winning effort The Hurt Locker, she explored how war infects and debilitates the mind. In other words, it was old school. In the just released Zero Dark Thirty, sure to be an Oscar-laden film as well, Bigelow soldiers into the war film’s newest encampment.
Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the CIA’s (and the Armed Forces’) mission to disrupt and destroy Al Qaeda after 9-11, culminating in the ultimate victory—the killing of Osama Bin Laden. I used to not favor movies about history where the viewer knows the outcome, for what is the thrill of following a story if you know its conclusion before you sit down?
In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, however, these reservations hold little sway. So swiftly paced are the events and so completely enthralling is the depiction, in real-time, of the raid that killed Bin Laden, any qualms about foreknowledge of Bin Laden getting a hole blown in his face are unwarranted.
The vessel through which this story is told is Maya, a rookie CIA agent who starts off uncertain of herself but becomes increasingly focused and obsessed with nailing Bin Laden. Maya is played by Jessica Chastain, who, I don’t think coincidentally, has a shock of red hair that reminded me of the obsessed rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster, with mousy-red hair) in The Silence of the Lambs. Whereas Foster’s character had depth, Chastain’s Maya is a cliché. She butts head with bosses and ignores protocol more than Dirty Harry. But like Inspector Callahan, she gets the job done, and it’s her persistence in following a lead that ultimately uncovers the hiding location of Bin Laden. However, that’s about all there is to Maya’s character. Indeed, there really is no time to delve into her inner life or dramatic purpose. An explosion, a shoot out, or enhanced interrogation scenes always intercede. There are rarely quiet pauses in this film.
What there is also not a lot of –refreshingly—is politics. There’s some talk about WMD and Iraq, but the script does not take shots at (or praise) either Barack Obama or George W. Bush. In fact, President Bush is, to a certain extent, vindicated by the film. The lead that Maya is persistent in following is uncovering the name and location of Bin Laden’s courier—the link between UBL in his compound to the outside world. The name of that courier is discovered through enhanced interrogation techniques at CIA black sites.
This will surely raise some hackles for those who wanted to see a condemnation of “torture,” but, at least according to this movie, waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and other tactics worked, and those scenes are tough to watch—as they should be.
One thing I found laughably unrealistic about this movie was the prettiness of many of the main players. One reason I enjoyed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy so much was because just about everyone was unattractive. Awkward men with pasty skin, in tweed coats and bow ties, were the masters of spycraft, as is probably the reality. In Zero Dark Thirty, at times, it feels as if the leads sprang from a J Crew ad. James Bond uses his good looks and sex appeal to save the world, but I’m not sure why Zero Dark Thirty needed cleavage shots or pretty young people.
I have no idea how accurate this movie is or strives to be. Based on my recollections, it seems to get most things correct, but I don’t know if the agents in Zero Dark Thirty are based on any real people. Only a late appearance by James Gandolfini, as CIA Chief Leon Panetta, seems to mirror a real person. The fact that Gandolfini is made to actually resemble Panetta—and isn’t a super-sleek, sexy agent—seems to be a nod toward historical accuracy. I’m certain some will say the film misses the mark quite widely, but it is a movie and movies must entertain.
If liberties are taken they do not feel egregious, and Zero Dark Thirty is quite effective –even if departing from the traditional dramatic approach to war films—at capturing the fear, the frustration, and the exhaustion of fighting the ‘war on terror.’