Zero Dark Thirty

So, after all the caterwauling on the right about Zero Dark Thirty basically being a campaign commercial for Obama, the film was finally released (months after the election) aaaand…well, the President is barely in it, and for the brief moment he is in it, he looks like a jackass.

Not that a certain degree of suspicion isn’t warranted, but Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker is fascinating for how non-committal it is, except in one regard that makes it destroy a bunch of treasured left-wing shibboleths (and even a few on the right).

The movie, if you’ve been living in bin Laden’s apocryphal cave, is a classic tale of an obsessed young CIA agent (the continually impressive Jessica Chastain) whose first job out of high school is, in essence, finding the notorious terrorist. And long after others have given up and moved on, she doggedly pursues (and of course locates) him.

This is a good movie. Maybe not the complete, stunning blowout that a lot of people seem to be calling it, however. Sometimes I wonder if the critics didn’t actually see it, and just figured that what the right was saying about what was in it was actually there, so it had to be good.

The acting is good. Jason Clarke (Lawless), Kyle Chandler (Argo) and James Gandolfini provide good support for what is basically a vehicle for Chastain. Whom, again, I have to say continues to impress, as her character goes from squeamish naif to hardass operative over the decade. I also particularly liked Jennifer Ehle (without recognizing her from The King’s Speech or Contagion) as a catty-competitor-turned-cohort.

Bigelow has developed a real knack for character development that could be called “masculine”. It reminds favorably of classic directors like Hawks and Ford: Her characters tend to speak through their actions, and we’re given little glimpse into their personal lives, as if what was important in life was what they did, rather than how they felt about it.

I mean, we get the idea that Chastain is frustrated. Pissed, even. Ready to throw down on anyone who would get in her way. There’s also a real personal sense of failure you get when the terrorists succeed at blowing or shooting up some shopping mall. And we get a sense, toward the end of the first act, that Clarke is a little weary of torturing people to try to collect intel.

Which brings us to how this movie slaps the left in the face: First and foremost, America is the good guys. Not just America, but the C-freaking-I-A. The bad guys, championed by some on the left as “freedom fighters” are out to gun down innocent people, and our heroes are trying to collect enough information to intercept them.

In this context, not only does extreme interrogation seem reasonable, you kind of feel sorry for the guys who are doing it.

Deep into the movie, as we’ve come to sympathize with the protagonists, Obama shows up in the background on “60 Minutes” telling Steve Croft, “America doesn’t torture.” It’s such a shallow, stupid thing to say, so far removed from the actual “War on Terror” that, as I said, he comes off like a jackass.

The movie makes no comment on whether or not torture works, but it does remove the discussion from the cartoonish depiction of interrogators as moustache-twirling sadists. As someone who basically hates the CIA, I was moved to respect the challenges they face in trying to stop this enemy.

The President is absent except as an invisible political actor, who makes it harder for them to do their job on the one hand, and delays the raid on the compound for four months on the other. And, a sentiment repeated often, the quality of the intel for raiding the compound was far worse than the intel for WMDs in Iraq.

Whoops.

Now, look, I don’t know what, if any, of this is true. It’s a plausible narrative in a lot of ways, dressed up as a nice character study. I don’t think there was any intent to be political, and it’s hard to imagine the director of The Hurt Locker as a right-winger—though there’s both a passion and understanding for military characters that she obviously developed directing that film—but I think by being true to the material, she may have hurt her career.

But long after anyone stops caring about that stuff, this will still be a good movie.

The Boy and The Flower both strongly approved.

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