Zero Dark Thirty: Review

January 30, 2013 by  
Filed under Film Reviews


In surveys polling the subjects voters are most concerned about, civil liberties rarely feature, and the consistent willingness of citizens to allow security theatre to infringe their human dignity for entertainment is the only logical explanation for the success of 24.

It would be unfair to tar Zero Dark Thirty with a Jerry Bruckheimer production brush, but the dramatic appeal comes a distant second in the critical appraisal the film has received for its use of violence.

This is entry level marketing: If you can’t sell a film on the quality of the performances, then sell it through the disproportionate publicity you can generate from a controversial stance on a contemporary subject.

Despite the damage done to their reputations at Leveson, some of the last idealists remaining in the adult world are journalists. While the remaining sell-outs still remember fondly the intense undergraduate debates they had as first time stoners.

Combine this with a reasonable PR budget and a subject which remains highbrow only because of the lack of attention it gets and you’re guaranteed a decent publicity window.

The amount of “enhanced interrogation” the film shows is less than five percent of the total running time. The idea of it pervades the film, but what appears on screen is factually accurate but not viscerally engaging.

One of the most frequently used arguments in favour of torture is the “ticking bomb” scenario. However, the most useful information gained by the CIA is after an attack, when Chastain et al trick a sleep deprived prisoner into believing that in his weary, amnesiac state he has given them what they needed to stop his co-conspirators. This allows them to pressure him into revealing other information now that he is a known collaborator.

Torture as inoffensive character and narrative development; or ‘the banality of evil’ as Hannah Arendt would call it.

Forgive me for being Brechtian, but is it too much to ask that a film this dependent upon the exploitation of one of the most serious issues modern society faces doesn’t leave the audience as complacent as ever?

Jessica Chastain’s character is unsubtly used as a metaphor for America as a whole – an innocent naif before she discovers those who want to hurt her, but by remaining determined and persevering through adversity she destroys her enemy. All the while clothed in the attractive facsimile of a protective maternal figure who will do whatever it takes to protect her family.

Zero Dark Thirty is probably a good film but certainly not a great one. Its artistic merits are overwhelmed by a desire to achieve the collective catharsis of a hubristic nation frustrated by a decade of impotence. The only thing less surprising than the ending is the inevitability of Enoch Powell patriots chanting “U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!” after watching it.

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