Zero Dark Thirty begins in darkness, not the pitch of night or space; rather simply, it starts with the black frame and voices. Instantly, we recognize the voices as those belonging to desperate callers on Sept. 11, 2001. People phoning dispatchers with questions, seeking to alert first responders to the emerging situation, making frantic calls to family and friends. The lines crackle with urgent pleading and the desire to believe, against all likelihood, that everything will be all right, even though it doesn’t take hindsight to realize that nothing will ever be the same again.
And then the use of voices changes. From harried victims to the voice of the interrogator, which is, in contrast, calm and even-keeled — professional with a hint of friendly persuasion, giving the sense that the speaker wants to help. The good side of the good cop/bad cop routine, but you find yourself waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the good to turn bad, and by bad, we’re talking hellishly bad.
Torture starts with statements and the voice. It reminds me of Frank Herbert’s Dune saga, that science fiction epic with intergalactic politics and dynastic alliances formed and fostered through the power of threats and the actualization of possible outcomes. There’s a cultish group of women, the Bene Gesserit, that works behind the scenes, attempting to manipulate genetics (in the long-term as it applies to royal lineage) and current policy, which they’ve proven quite adept at through the use of “The Voice,” commanding modulation that forces the listener to respond in certain ways that may, in fact, run counter to the listener’s psychological and ideological bent. It is the power of Manchurian suggestion extended to the outer limits of its potential.
Back in our world, the world of Zero Dark Thirty, our command of the voice is far more primitive, but no less effective. As we watch a practitioner of the voice — Jason Clarke effective as the anonymously named Dan — in the execution of torture, we do so from the perspective of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a new CIA operative dispatched to this black site to oversee the collection of information. We understand that she knows that these practices occur, that much of what she may actually know about what is going on in this part of the world, comes from such actions, but she is seeing it for the first time, live and in the moment. She recoils. It is a natural first reaction, especially considering that she is a woman, a decidedly second-class citizen in this region, but she quickly adapts to the realities of the situation.
But by her second time in the hot box, Maya forgoes attempts to conceal her identity. What does it matter? The subject will likely never see freedom again and if he does, so what? Maya, as we come to realize, has no one to protect, no life outside where she is. Maya has made a decision to forgo all of the extraneous elements of life and living — we have no evidence of whether or not this was a difficult choice — much like the kinds of male heroes that we celebrate in other action fantasies (the Rambos and Jason Bournes, the Terminators and such).
But with her, it feels different, somehow wrong.
Why would a woman sacrifice so much?
Director Kathryn Bigelow was once married to James Cameron.
We know this because much was made of the fact during the Oscar campaign of 2008, when these two filmmakers found themselves locked in contention for Best Picture and Best Director honors for The Hurt Locker and Avatar, respectively. The weight of history certainly tipped the scales a bit, since Bigelow was on the verge of being the first female to win an Oscar for direction. Of course, to point this out lessens her achievement. The Hurt Locker was a stronger overall film due to her direction, despite the fact that with Avatar, Cameron employed 3D effects in ways that transformed the technology and our appreciation of it.
Bigelow took us inside the psyche of modern soldiers, the daring risk-taking that made such men effective in the field, but lousy and inept anywhere else. She showed us the hurt locked within them by presenting the horrific damage inflicted in modern warfare. She has a way with this type of investigation, which mixes psychology, emotion and physicality as they combine to define character.
It is strange, though, that we focus so much on Bigelow as a director of action, as if the action on display in her films stands in isolation, disconnected from both narrative and character. Yet, think back, to Blue Steel (1989), a lesser title in her filmography maybe, but one centered on Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis), a rookie cop drawn into a deadly game with a killer obsessed with her. Without a doubt, the action grabs our senses, but we hang in there with Turner, this young woman fighting inside a system that seeks to chew her up and spit her out, while locked in battle of wits and will with a killer who, at least, respects her more. The same could be said of Bigelow and the Hollywood directing boy’s club.
Two years later, she followed Blue Steel with Point Break, the now cultish thriller about a team of surfing bank robbers (led by Patrick Swayze as his dreamy Swayzest) and Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), the FBI agent who infiltrates the group and bonds with Swayze’s Bodhi over a shared love of waves, women and the greater wonders of life. Point Break is pure cheese, but elevated to existential heights because Bigelow refuses to disrespect the material or the characters. She invests and infuses each moment with meaning, with the sense that these men in these decidedly ludicrous situations are laying themselves bare before each other and us. Masks and lies fall away, chases and women provide adrenaline jolts, but all so that we have the chance to recognize the hearts and souls underneath.
Just as Bigelow would produce one of these breathless episodes and trigger a wave of anticipation for her next move, she would seemingly retreat. Career-wise, she was not rushing from one project to the next. Two years off became three, and then more, leaving us to wonder and assume that maybe Hollywood was to blame. Was it harder for a woman to gain the traction necessary to line up steady work? What would it take, and, in the end, did Bigelow have what it would take?
Maya certainly proves tenacious. That’s a bit of an understatement. She’s like an undersized point guard, the kid who was too small from birth, but had more desire than the bigger players blessed with embarrassing riches of talent. That lowly runt arrived early for practice and stayed late every day, simply would not quit, was not content with a spot on the varsity squad because nothing mattered more than starting every single game at every successive level. That is Bigelow’s Maya, our guide through the dark.
She studied Dan’s approach to torture and reapplies it to her encounters with her superiors. When she needs action, Maya develops techniques to amplify her commanding voice to get results. First with her Middle East section chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), then with George (Mark Strong) who steps in later, on up to the director of the CIA (James Gandolfini), Maya extracts what she requires without concern for the toll on her immediate subject.
What emerges throughout the first two thirds of the film is the inspiring portrait of a force of will and nature. While based on fact and history, Zero Dark Thirty is first and foremost a narrative with broad license taken to create a compelling story, which means that — especially in the case of Maya — what we are presented with is a composite of multiple players. This manhunt could not have been achieved through such a singular effort, although Chastain’s performance makes a pretty strong case for the idea that if it could be done, she would be on the very short shortlist of people able to pull it off. Her Maya is stripped down, any and all considerations of beauty, race and gender have been removed, so what remains is pure drive. The performance distills everything else in order to become one-note, which confounds our expectations.
But Maya serves as an example reminding us what it takes to achieve such highly improbable goals within a system full of scattered operatives. And, carrying this notion a step further, Maya is also a fine exemplar of what it takes to make a film like Zero Dark Thirty. The final third of the film, the raid on the compound and the actual killing of Osama Bin Laden, plays out with Maya on the sidelines, waiting back at the base camp for the military team to return. She has set this up and must rely on others to execute the plan, but she has prepped them for all possibilities and thanks to her efforts, the outcome is never in doubt. Success is guaranteed. The only thing left…the same question that always haunts such enterprises. What comes next? (R) Grade: A
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