This time last year Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was dominating critics’ groups and regional film circles as being the frontrunner pick for Best Picture. Following what would become weeks of media attention and a series of messy debates regarding the picture’s depiction of torture, it’s once prominent presence would not translate to awards glory. Viewing the picture in its opening week in Chicago I was first impressed by its penetrating study of a woman attempting to uncover the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. Depiction of torture and the subsequent political motivations of the film registered as secondary. But given the nationwide debate that the film provoked, my eagerness to discuss the formal and sociological merits of Zero Dark Thirty were largely met with a shrug - after all, this was the torture movie. It’s been about a year since the New York Film Critics Circle pronounced Zero Dark Thirty as the Best Film of 2012 and started its massive yet short-lived tenure as the hot-button film of 2012. With 2014 well on its way, was Zero Dark Thirty just another zeitgeist film that loses its significance as we step away or is it something of considerable weight?
Rewatching Zero Dark Thirty, I’m immediately caught off guard by how little I remember from my initial viewing. The opening sequences, which details Maya (Jessica Chastain) learning the torturing ropes from fellow CIA-operative Dan (Jason Clarke), are formally proficient though don’t particularly resonate as volatile examples of conservative condemnations - at least not to the point that political analysts made you think upon the picture’s release. The apolitical stance that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal take with Zero Dark Thirty is maintained throughout the picture, effectively stripping away any sense of blame on any particular political group,
But there is a blame to be felt in Zero Dark Thirty and it’s something of broader social implication. Maya dutifully adheres to policies and procedures, often at her own reluctance. Many characterized Chastain’s character as robotic in design - she’s afforded very little back story and her motivations are largely defined by her need to find Bin Laden. I likened her behavior in my original review of the film to that of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith in 2007’s Zodiac and it’s a comparison that I still see parallels to. But whereas Graysmith’s motivations are the product of proving something to himself and that of his colleagues (Fincher’s film establishes the disposable role that Graysmith has as the San Francisco Chronicle’s cartoonist quite quickly), Maya’s actions seen to stem out of a revenge fantasy constructed by the American psyche.
Bigelow and Boal strip Maya of sexual and even gender preoccupations - there are throwaway lines like Maya noting to her colleague that “I’m not that girl that fucks. It’s unbecoming” that make sex an open-and-shut case, never to be returned to again. Other scenes, such as when James Gandolfini’s character questions Maya on what she did prior to working on capturing Bin Laden, just about eradicate any sense of history the character can have. This prohibits the Maya character to operate as less a character and more a symbol - a symbol for justice, perhaps, but more accurately, she becomes a symbol of vengeance and retribution. The undying and unbridled hatred that the American people have been conditioned to have over Osama Bin Laden.
Zero Dark Thirty does not admonish this sensibility but rather looks upon it coldly, not as an option that can provide innate human satisfaction. The best scene in the entire film comes in its closing sequence where Maya is humanized. For a film that feels as if it perpetually holds its breath, this moment of exhale provides a bittersweet moment of reflection. Where will Maya go as a woman whose entire career has been an exercise in vengeance? Returning to a life of normalcy is next to impossible provided that she’s never had a life that resembled the typical. It could perhaps be seen as too much of an “aha” moment where the pieces of the film’s cold structure are warmed easy consumption. But the moment is so calibrated and justified, earned in all respects for its high attention to detail (this is a film that opens itself up to genuine fact checking) and gradual momentum, that I was taken aback by just how effective that moment turned out to be. Like David Fincher’s The Social Network and Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, Zero Dark Thirty exceeds at capturing a picture of a time. Simultaneously a zeitgeist and universal picture, it captures its specific time and place in such refined and cathartic detail that it transcends that very time and place - essentially entering into masterpiece territory of timeless effect.