Zero Dark Thirty

By Casey Tourangeau

Mailed on January 18, 2013

Stamp image Priority
StarStarStarStarHalf Star

Dear Barry Rice
Technical Consultant

Dear Barry,

Scanning the credits for Zero Dark Thirty, I noticed yours: "technical consultant." It seemed, let's say, noncommittal. Consultants are by nature pretty specialized, hired for their expertise in a given field. But your title implied a refusal to be pigeon-holed; you were defining your expertise on your own terms. And it struck me: what could be more perfect for someone working on a film that refuses the same basic consideration? In telling the story of the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty doesn't spell out what it's supposed to mean--it leaves that work to the audience.

Like screenwriter Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty is your second collaboration with director Kathryn Bigelow after working together on The Hurt Locker. And also like that film, Zero Dark Thirty's tone is right down the middle: events are shown without commentary and almost without emotion. Bigelow and Boal are in their element detailing the minutiae of procedure. And like them, their characters are defined through their work and actions. Each one--NSA Technician, Navy Seal, Black Site interrogator--creates his or her identity through craft. It's no coincidence that one of the titles used to break the film into chapters is "Tradecraft."

It's one of these experts, a CIA analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain in a performance commendable for its sparseness), who leads us through ten year's worth of interrogations, missed connections, and dead ends. Although she is only a mid-sized cog in the giant CIA machine, Maya's almost fanatical devotion to her work creates the drama that propels Zero Dark Thirty's narrative.

This matter-of-fact approach may seem at odds with a subject matter that stirs so many emotions, but Boals and Bigelow are canny enough filmmakers to know that holding back can increase the impact. This was perfectly evidenced in the film's opening, constructed solely from distress calls made from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Rarely--perhaps never--have I been so aware during a screening that everything to which I'm responding, both intellectually and emotionally, is being dictated almost entirely by me. Zero Dark Thirty acts like a feature-length version of the second shot in a Kuleshov test; the film's meaning is created in conjunction with the viewer's beliefs.

If you want Zero Dark Thirty to support something you already held going into it, you can mold it into that form.

Is it problematic that Bigelow and Boals seem to have no clear judgment on the subject of their own film? Perhaps, but I find it fascinating; and like Chastain's Maya, I relished looking for the connections (created here through filmmaking--or tradecraft, if you will), that may reveal some of the artist's intent. And I do think those connections are there: the use of those aforementioned chapter titles, for example, and specifically the precise way dates are used, may actually condemn the (tremendously staged and filmed) climax as a continuation of a cycle of violence rather than catharsis.

But I have a feeling I don't need to convince you, whatever it was you actually did in the movie, of the benefits of keeping your identity open to interpretation.

Coming at you right down the middle,


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