Unsung Heroes: The Expectation Defying "Zero Dark Thirty"

Wow, was I surprised by Zero Dark Thirty! From the early trailers, I was initially intrigued, but ultimately uninterested in this military movie with an ending I already knew. I didn't feel a need to watch a reenactment of Seal Team Six’s raid on Osama bin Laden. I had seen the news like the rest of the world. This simply didn't interest me.

Then the buzz spread. I live in the Midwest, which means that I didn't have a chance to see Zero Dark Thirty before its wide release in January. As the nominations started racking up, I became more interested. It doesn't take that much to convince me to see a film, so when a buddy asked if I wanted to go to see this on opening night, I jumped at the chance.

Warning: This is a post-viewing discussion of the film. If you haven't seen it yet, turn back now.

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The word of the day is “tension”. By the time I finish writing this, I will have likely attempted to use as many synonyms as I can muster. Kathryn Bigelow does a fantastic job turning a film that is largely filled with political conversations, incomprehensible chatter, analysis, and simply looking at things into a riveting thriller.  Yes, the writing, acting, editing, and score also contributed to this success of this film; but this follow up to The Hurt Locker proves that Kathryn Bigelow knows how to build and hold pressure. So much of the film contains a growing sense of dread as we begin to doubt if the characters we are watching will succeed in their search, or even survive to the next scene. I’ll also call attention to Alexandre Desplat’s score. It’s subtle, and it’s nonexistent in the Navy Seal strike, but effective in building that tension.  

I cannot decide if Zero Dark Thirty is the worst marketed film since John Carter, or a great example of awards season fare doing its best to gain attention. The early trailers reminded me of the Bourne series, playing up the manhunt angle. In retrospect, it was as good of a representation of the film that we could get in a few minutes (the “we are failing” speech from Mark Strong’s character is fantastic).  However, I wasn't sure what to expect.  The Sunday of its wide release provided me with the best examples of the strange marketing of ZDT. During an NFL playoff game, I saw a 30 second commercial that almost exclusively featured the Navy Seals, not one shot of Maya. During the Golden Globes than evening, I saw a completely different commercial filled with accolades and a focus on Jessica Chastain.

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You may be asking why this matters. In my opinion, the story seen here is too good to be overshadowed by controversy or playing on American interests to see “what really happened”. General audiences haven’t been aware of Jessica Chastain’s fantastic performance. Obviously the awards buzz has helped draw attention, and the movie did just fine at the box office, but I think more people should be interested in seeing this film. When I came home and told my wife about Zero Dark Thirty, she told me that my description didn't match her expectation at all. The trailers are catering to the Call of Duty crowd, but my wife was really interested in the strong female character and the intense CIA drama that represents 80% of the film. The next day, I had a friend tell me that he really wanted to see it, but his girlfriend wouldn't want to go with him. I think this is happening a lot. It’s likely a calculated move by the studio, but I just don’t think that it the right choice.  Obviously the film has found success financially and critically; as it has gained attention from great reviews, word of mouth, and controversy.

Let’s talk about that controversy for a moment. Much has been said about the inclusion of torture in the film. As many have observed, it seems that both the right and the left are upset with Zero Dark Thirty. In my opinion, the film seems to do a good job of dramatizing what happened without conveying a political agenda. We are given a view of what happened (or at least the type of events that took place) and are invited to make up our own minds. This allowed the film to focus on what I believe was more interesting, the characters reactions to these events. I’m less interested in whether or not ZDT is making a statement on the effectiveness of torture, and more interested in watching Dan deal with the nature of his work and how Maya reacts to it.

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That leads me to Jessica Chastain and her portrayal of Maya. This movie doesn’t work without her. Think about those interrogation scenes in the first half of the film. It would have been cliché to have a “tough-as-nails” CIA agent who kept a stone face as she witnessed the interrogations, or if Maya would have been afraid to even watch. Instead we watched this strong agent try to maintain herself while grappling with what was happening around her. When she was left alone with the prisoner Ammar and he asked for help, I had no idea what Maya would do. Was she going to sympathize with him, stare coldly in silence, or walk out? Much of the character’s strength may have come from the writing, but Jessica Chastain pulls off such a great performance that could have felt one-dimensional. If Maya isn’t interesting, if she was portrayed as a fearless super-agent, the movie would be known as an excruciating delay while you wait for Seal Team 6 to show up. Instead of watching the credits and thinking about how I may not have drawn a breath in the last 30 minutes, I was haunted by what Maya was thinking as she was faced with the question of where she wants to go. I want to know what someone does after devoting ten years of their life to finding one terrorist.

I am happy for the attention and praise Jessica Chastain and Kathryn Bigelow have been getting for this film, because I think this is the kind of character that we always wish we had when awards season rolls around. It seems that every year once best actress nominations are announced they are quickly followed with questions about the lack and diversity of strong roles for women. This role is an answer to those types of questions. In this type of a military movie, we could be given messages of a woman in a man’s world, or shown Maya acting more masculine in order to fit in. Those angles aren't played up at all. Maya is the central character because of her determination to find Osama bin Laden. That’s it. It was her assignment, not even her choice (though it became more personal as the film went on). We see this story unfold primarily from her perspective, and that makes it fascinating. There’s no pandering or some “girl power” message, and that is why I get frustrated when I see the character excluded from marketing materials. It leaves me with the feeling that audiences need to be tricked in seeing such a great movie with the promise of a true-to-life depiction of a military mission.

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In the end, Zero Dark Thirty was the biggest surprise of the year for me. It defied my low expectations. Instead of a reenactment with a big budget, we got an enthralling look into the lives of a few CIA operatives, and what they went through to capture the most wanted man in the world. Instead of Kathryn Bigelow cashing in on a new reputation of filming modern war (thanks to The Hurt Locker), she possibly surpasses that film and masterfully tells us a story that we think we already know. Instead of a rushed adaptation of a military mission, we meet characters and witness events that give us context beyond what we heard on the evening news. I didn’t expect to enjoy this movie, and couldn’t have been more wrong.

What did you think? Am I missing the point? What do you think Maya was crying about? Are the awards considerations deserved? Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty.