Sunday, February 24, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Into the Great Wide Open


Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.

- William Butler Yeats
  "Easter 1916"

Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's follow up to The Hurt Locker, encapsulates post- 9/11 America.  As we follow Maya in her pursuit of Osama Bin Laden through interrogation rooms, embassy hallways, and satellite photos a historical tunnel vision sets in.  Many reviews have focused on Maya as a "blank slate" type character with not much of a personality, no real relationships in the film, and a self-righteousness bordering on obsessive.  But these are recurring types in American lore from Captain Ahab of the Pequod to the Mark Zuckerberg of the The Social Network.  They are driven by revenge and a sense of justice to set the world right- even to the point where their will and determination leaves them with a unique type of emptiness.

As cinematic entertainment, Zero Dark Thirty towers over the rest.  At 160 minutes the film builds to a chilling climax (or an anti-climax) with the killing of Bin Laden.  The years fly on by with no context provided for what else was going on in the world.  The geopolitical background behind 9/11 and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan are too complex for any to film to handle so instead we get an epic about a capturing a charismatic terrorist.  As one insightful critic noted, trying to make sense of modern history is akin to staring into the sun.  A 24 hour news cycle gives all of us a tunnel vision where there is no historical context for anything.  No one will even a agree on a narrative because we don't know where to begin.

The past few months I've been teaching a class on Western Civilization and we examine the Roman Empire in some depth.  While it is tempting to think of America as  the "New Rome" the parallels are striking.  During the height of the Roman Empire, the "Pax Romana,"  Rome defended their borders while those inside the empire went about their lives with prosperity quite rare in the ancient world.  Trouble from the Barbarians rarely effected them directly.  Have we reached a similar moment in American civilization?  Unless you know someone in the armed forces one can go about their lives with little concern for what's happening in the world.  Instead we have video games, movies, Fox News, and strip malls. Yes, America is now an Empire.

As for the film, it is tightly edited, well acted, procedural and is more interesting by what it chooses not to address.  Bigelow's narrative drive is so seamless it left me disoriented. The final 45 minutes are filmed through night vision as the Navy Seals close in on Bin Laden's compound.  They exchange banter before the raid that exudes a professionalism one expects from the most elite unit in the military.  On the one hand it is a marvel to see them at work.  On the other, there is a banality to it making it all the more haunting.  As the film ends Maya stares blankly into the camera there in the midst of ominous silence inside an empty cargo plane.  What is she thinking? Have we all stared into the void of history?

In perhaps the greatest of all procedural films All the President's  Men is about two heroic reporters who pursued the Watergate scandal and helped end a corrupt administration; thereby preserving the idea of democracy.  Zero Dark Thirty is working in reverse:  a film working from within the national security state.  Security is the theme, but it adds up to a negation and an aimlessness implying a future shrouded in fog and unpredictability.