Friday, January 18, 2013

Rise of a New Way—Zero Dark Thirty

"I am the motherfucker who found this place."

OVERALL: Recommended

It is not too soon for this film. About more than Osama Bin Laden, about more than Barack Obama, more than 9/11, more than military tactics, more than an individual's courage in the face of overwhelming odds, Zero Dark Thirty is about the rise of a new age, one where the leadership of women makes the difference.  

Jessica Chastain, as CIA operative Maya, in a iron-hard performance of grit, courage, determination, and intellect suberbly delivers that surprising line—I am the motherfucker who found this place— in front of a cadre of stiff suits in the White House around a model of Bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad.

Maya convinces her colleagues and ultimately the rest of the world that she had found her target. More than that, she convinces the men in positions of influence to set their careerism aside and focus on the thing that most needs doing.

Jason Clarke begins the film as the ruthless interrogator Dan, and while Maya has a hard time stomaching his practices, she is a realist and does not back down. She outlasts Dan psychologically, staying on after he moves to back to Washington an inner poise and endurance even greater than his.

Let us not miss the point about torture: it is a merciless practice. We are asked in the film to weigh it. And yet, there is real movement in the film away from torture as the story progresses. The CIA is forced to find other ways to get their information, and respect the far less gladiatorial but more quietly persuasive ways of Maya. I find it completely mystifying why Bigelow is being taken to task over this. Perhaps a more careful viewing of the film is in order.

One of the unique features of the film is that while we know the ending, we do not know the result of the penultimate plot. The location of Bin Laden's courier was won with the sacrifice of lives. This creates terrific tension in the film, right up until the actual capture. The final scenes are depicted with an honesty (how could they have crashed a helicopter?) and a rhythm that has the heart beating well after the film.

Zero Dark Thirty reminds us that we are truly in a new age, one where tactics like waterboarding begin to take a back seat, and where the good-ol-boy institutions are not effective anymore on their own, one where a woman can not only lead soldiers, but lead using every device, keep everyone focused on the goal to the exclusion of all else, and experience the utter loneliness of that kind of leadership.

It was a real goal, not a fantasy. One that was really accomplished, not just dreamt about, by a woman in the prime of her career. This fact makes the heroism and suspense of Kathryn Bigelow's film a sharp and poignant commentary, one every American should see.


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