Zero Dark Thirty And The Artistic Vacuum

zero_dark_thirty poster

Zero Dark Thirty is being praised to the high heavens for its “journalistic” and “realistic” take on the hunt for and killing of Osama Bin Laden, terms film critics use to describe movies shot with shaky-cam, i.e. handheld cameras that bounce around, that frame everything “unartistically,” that feature way too many close-ups of ears and hands and burning cigarettes, and wherein scenes aren’t scenes so much as mini-information dumps, one after the other. I don’t find this “realistic” at all. It’s pure Hollywood. It’s blatant stylization, the stylization of “The Real.” It imitates what it looks like when a journalist runs around a war-zone with a camera. There are no journalists running around war-zones with cameras in Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a movie. Shot by a professional film crew. With actors. It’s fake. And everyone involved has gone to huge artistic lengths to give it a very particular kind of style.

There is no such thing as “objectivity” in movies. Not in fiction films, and not in documentaries. Everything done in any film is a choice. You can fool yourself into believing you have no agenda, but you do.

Kathryn Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty, has said over and over again that she and screenwriter Mark Boal wanted simply to show what happened during the hunt for Bin Laden, without any commentary whatsoever, this in response mainly to accusations of the film showing torture in a positive light. This attempt at an objective stance, however, is itself a specific artistic choice, and it kills any hope the film might have had for relevence or meaning.

jessica chastain zero dark thirty

Zero Dark Thirty is an absurdly long (2:37), boring, emotionless slog about war, torture, murder, and obsession, that very pointedly has absolutely nothing to say about any of those matters, nor about the characters involved in them. To its champions, and they are everywhere, for after all, this is an Important Film about an Important Subject, and is the seeming front-runner for a pile of Oscars, the blank slate the film presents is its greatest strength. By saying nothing, they argue, we in the audience may decide for ourselves what the film means. The meaning will come from the audience, who bring their own prejudices with them. The movie is like a newscast: it reports, you decide. (Where have I heard that before?).

zero dark thirty

Only I notice that not a single movie reviewer offers an opinion on what the movie means. As far as anyone will go is to affirm or deny that the movie contains a pro-torture message. Because the movie doesn’t mean anything. It just sits there. Empty of anything. How is this a strength?

It’s not a strength. It’s the height of artistic cowardice. I can’t even wrap my head around it. The filmmakers merely shrug and say, “Gosh, what? Us say something? No, sir. We just showed what happened.” No! You did no such thing! You made a movie. Claiming to be making no artistic statement is as much an artistic statement as any other. That your statement is “Nope, we gots nuthin’ to say” isn’t a reason for congratulations. It’s a reason for bewilderment and sorrow at having sat though such a purposefully meaningless movie.

chastain zero dark

Let’s forget about the filmmakers. Their opinions on what they meant to do or imagine they suceeded in doing don’t matter in the end. What matters is what’s on-screen.

It’s hard to go into the story for the sheer boredom of it. There’s no structure at all. It’s two hours of young CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) trying to convince her superiors that there’s this courier who knows Bin Laden, and if they could just find the guy, they’d find Bin Laden. Eventually they mostly believe her. The rest of the movie is the raid on Bin Laden’s compound. It’s shot largely with green night-vision lenses, which is according to critics the most daring, original idea ever thrown up on a movie screen. I guess they don’t watch a lot of Schwarzenegger movies or something. So whatever, the raid is shot in as boring and pedestrian a way as possible, i.e. as REAL a way as possible. It’s so real you could have cut 15 minutes out and still fallen asleep.

Zero+Dark+Thirty

Speaking of only-in-a-movie sequences, there’s this female co-worker of Maya’s who’s found a doctor who’s going to spill his guts about Bin Laden. She sets up a meeting at a base in Afghanistan. And I guess this is a spoiler for those of you who have never seen a movie before, but this sequence is shot in such a way that you’re simply waiting for her to be blown up, which she is. Look how excited she is! This lead can’t fail! Oh, but where is he? Look! There in a lone car speeding towards the base! Say, tell those pesky soldiers to let the car in without searching it, because everything’s going to be fine! Text Maya back in Pakistan about how great it’s going and that he’s just arrived! He steps out of the car, only something’s wrong and oh my god is he supposed to have that cane and—BOOM! You’re all dead. Surprise.

zero dark boom

The Hurt Locker (’08), the previous Oscar-gobbling collaboration between Bigelow and Boal, is better. Mostly because it’s shorter. It too was shot in the so-real-it’s-fake shaky-cam style, it too had no real scenes, bad dialogue, nothing to say, and it too will never again be watched by anyone.

zero dark chastain

Can you imagine watching Zero Dark Thirty again? Why would you? It’s not just that it’s bad. It’s empty. It’s a kind of anti-movie. At the end a lone tear rolls down Maya’s cheek. Has she wasted ten years of her life merely to kill one old man? Or has her heroic journey reached its noble end? A real movie might have subtly built a story forcing that choice on its audience. We would call that powerful filmmaking. We would call that purposefully ambiguous. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t build towards anything. None of it is structured with any purpose at all. It’s purpose is to say as loud as possible, “We have no purpose! There is no meaning here! You think there’s meaning? That’s YOUR fault! Leave us alone! Get offa my lawn or I’ll cane ya!”

I’ve depressed myself writing this. Who wants to watch or write about a movie that has nothing to say? That offers nothing to engage with? That exists as nothing more than a giant, soul-sucking artistic vacuum? Writing about it I feel as empty as I did watching it. What good is an artist with nothing to say?

25 responses on “Zero Dark Thirty And The Artistic Vacuum

  1. Think about puppies playing in the snow, SB. There there. There there. It’s okay. The bad lady won’t hurt you any more.

  2. I worked on a movie a few years back called “Memorial Day”, both as an actor & writer, withy academy-award nominated Josh Fox (“Gasland”), that dealt almost exclusively with torture.

    Josh’s idea was that the kind of behavior that Americans carry on with at place like Abu Ghraib, was just an extension of the way we act here at home. We filmed at Ocean City, Maryland, which is like spring break for grown-ups. Its a perpetual motion machine of the worst sort of human behaviors – public intoxication, sex, nudity… a litany of psychological self-mutilation.

    Needless to say, when the film got a release, people went INSANE. We were hemorrhaging audience at Cinevegas. Just the idea that torture comes from our own culture was impossible to consider.

    I remember shooting one scene outside… it was a group of actors dressed as soldiers & a group of actors dressed as EPWs (“Enemy Prisioners of War”), and we were nearby a nightclub. And that image, with no context whatsoever, almost started a riot. People came streaming out of the club. I thought we were going to get killed.

    I remember one guy, on his bike, screaming over & over “GET OUT OF AMERICA, MOTHER***ERS.”

    I don’t want to get into the politics of torture, or the war on terror. But I do think that a lot of Americans think of torture as another sport, and certainly don’t want anyone coming along and spoiling,

    Here’s the films trailer, FYI – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKOo1NGKAMQ

  3. Wow, I found your site while trolling Google results to affirm that I was not the only soul to question Spielberg’s latest triumph (specifically, I was curious if anyone else found Kaminski’s lighting to be completely incompetent. The marketing materials which dominate Google’s results insist the lighting is purposefully “natural”. Not sure why everyone’s face was spot lighted in 1865, but I digress).

    I completely agree with your critique of Bigelow’s latest as well. Having been disappointed by Hurt Locker, which was lauded as if it were a documentary capturing the frivolity of war but was actually a thinly veiled action flick, I had very low expectations for Zero Three Sixty. The movie explores some of the darkest aspects of human nature yet the story and characters express almost no emotion, no reaction to the events confronting them. Sure, apologists for the movie can try to explain away these flaws as purposeful decisions by the filmmakers, but why would a filmmaker knowingly choose banality? I suppose that professional critics cannot afford to pan a movie about killing bin laden, no matter how flat the story may be, but I cannot understand why so many viewers would sing their praises for it. Same for Lincoln.

    How can so many people settle for so little from these filmmakers who have every resource at their disposal? Criticism of these movies is not unpatriotic; the converse is also true: praising these films will not make you a better American. Such poor treatment of these monumental events will more likely diminish their legacies rather than promote them. And the tickets are pricey, too.

  4. Post 9/11 America is severely fucked up. And the instant praise for Bigelow’s work is a case in point. It’s propaganda. Not a viewpoint. I left Hurt Locker very very angry. Is that all you have to say after your country invades and occupies two nations? Adrenaline junky anti-heroes are the most interesting storyline you could think of? We are 40 years past the 1970s and war movies say infinitely less now than they did then. What will cultural anthropologists say about the war genre from the early 21st century? I believe they will say we were cowards.

    • Agreed. Of course it’s unfair to suggest that every movie live up to a standard set by films like Apocalypse Now; however, the modern narratives which are largely immemorable do not begin to approach the depth found in the vietnam classics. Perhaps it can be explained by the difference in the economics of getting a film to market between then and now. If cowardice is not to blame, then perhaps cold-blooded apathy is.

      • In the Vietnam era, people were pissed off. And it showed in the films. Now, I don’t even know. Seems as though being angry at our wars and torture is seen as a weakness of critical thinking, or some such nonsense. Surely Bigelow had to assure all her backers not to worry, that no viewpoint was being taken, nothing would be ‘said’ in her movie. So the movie gets made, and is praised for not only not taking any kind of stand, but for having no thoughts in its head at all.

        I don’t know why we should praise a filmmaker for the bold choice of having nothing to say.

      • Its not even the “classics” that had a perspective on Viet Nam. Of course films like “Deer Hunter” are an awesome emotional look at that war. But even the “exploitation” movies had a sort of fearless look at the isolation and other challenges that vets faced from a “bad war”.

        Movies like “Rolling Thunder” and my personal favorite, “The Exterminator” went straight at the dislocation that vets felt coming home. It was an accepted fact of the 70s that war hurts the warrior.

        And look at how really bold “FIRST BLOOD” was. That last monologue by Stallone is probably my favorite Stallone moment *ever*.

        But somehow, along the way, it became a sin to talk about the cost of war.

        • First Blood is definitely underrated. You should check out Wake in Fright if you haven’t yet. We wrote that up a couple of weeks back. Same director.

  5. Incredibly accurate review. I was blown away by the vacuousness of this movie and by the time the credits were rolling could not believe a) that I stayed for the whole thing and b) the effusive praise.

    There is no rational reason to praise this terrible movie.

    Great review

  6. Dude, did you ever miss the point(s).

    One of them is to puncture your illusions about meaning.

    Meaning, in the sense you’re using the term, doesn’t exist. Or rather, it exists only in human heads. It’s a story we tell ourselves — an infinite array of different, and often contradictory stories.

    But out there, in the Real World(tm) there is no objective correlative, no “true” meaning. There are just facts; flat, empty, non-human.

    And dude, don’t project your subjective feelings on others, or on the universe. For example, other people find the movie riveting; you claim it was boring. Guess what? It was riveting for them, and possibly boring for you… though I strongly suspect that your real feeling was rage.

    Whether the film was interesting or not is a matter of opinion. And opinions are like the posterior orifice; we all have one, few bear close examination.

    What you’re objecting to isn’t that the movie doesn’t tell the world as a story; what you’re mad about is that the the story isn’t the one in which you are invested.

    To the gallery: about the lack of “emotion”. Guess what, most people don’t actually go around dwelling on their emotional states all the time. Particularly people doing hard, dangerous work. Being emo is a luxury for bo-bo types with far too much free time. The rest of the world tends to be much more outer-directed.

    • This is the kind of anti-arguement that drives me crazy. This sort of almost nihilistic approach to art. Particularly the statement “don’t go projecting your subjective feelings on others, or the universe.”

      I hate to break it to you, “dude” but what you just described was THE ACT OF HUMAN COMMUNICATION. Every script I write is a my projection of my subjective feelings on others. That’s the purpose of creation; to open up the deeply internal experience of my world-view in a way that other people can participate in this.

      And the idea of “super-relativity” in art; the statement that *all* art is of equal merit. That “Manos, the hands of fate” and “The Third Man” are equally successful exercises in the craft of storytelling.

      And I’ve got news for you, friend. Art *is* emotion. Art is the secret world revealed. I’d highly suggest you take a look at Shakespeare’s folio, and study how he treats emotion. I bet you’ll find an occassional moment of emoting.

      And, please, for the love of god, guy, stop calling people “dude.”

      • I disagree with all of you. Manos the Hands of Fate is totally awesome, dude.

        But seriously. I just watched Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. If you want to see a 2:37 hour film that meanders, goes almost nowhere, is full of pointless conversations, and yet is completely imbued with the sense that there is meaning to the world if only you could be clever enough to see it: bam. Totally beautiful. That’s how you do “we don’t have a message; you figure it out yourself” without being disingenuous.

        Zero Dark Thirty is a non-documentary that calls itself the truth. I’m not really sure what to say about that. Except I’m unemotional about it.

        As to Mr. Sterling’s comment… I think it’s brilliant. He’s managed to do in a few short paragraphs everything he claims SB took an entire article to do, i.e.:

        Meaning doesn’t exist, except it exists the way I think it does.

        Don’t project your feelings, but let me accuse you of having an unspoken agenda.

        Opinions are worthless, but here’s mine.

        People don’t go around showing their emotions HE RANTED IN A BLOG COMMENT ABOUT A FILM WITH WHICH HE HAS NO PERSONAL CONNECTION.

        Plus, seriously? Being emo? There’s a difference between having an emotion and making judgements. There was precious little evidence of either in 0D30.

        • You’re right, I shouldn’t have picked on Manos, its a masterpiece of badness. Instead I should have used “”.

  7. If the film’s quality is a matter of opinion, why are you so outraged that I’ve expressed mine? This is a site where we discuss our opinions of movies. Have you never read any discussions of artwork before? This is how it works: a person, in this case me, opines. I could add before every sentence, “It is my opinion that…”, but that would be, in a word, stupid. You appear, sir, to be a writer of some renown. Surely you’re aware of how opinions are expressed in essays?

    I’m not finding anything in your post to make me see the light you’ve seen in the film. You seem simply to be mad that I disliked a movie you liked, and now you’ve become hot and bothered about it.

    What are my illusions about meaning? I think I was very clear in my article: you don’t get to make a movie and say that it doesn’t mean anything. “Facts” may have no meaning (and boy is that a debatable point, but we can skip the philosophical discussion on the nature of reality, and whether or not anything exists outside the relationships we have with said things), but movies are not facts; they are movies; they are art; they are the world, “facts” if you like, as interpreted through the lens of one or more people.

    This is the very thing that makes art valuable. It allows us to see the world through the eyes of another, thus expanding, in the best cases, our understanding of the world.

    People doing dangerous work have no time for emotions? Have you talked to them? All the people in history who’ve done dangerous work? That’s rather a sweeping statement, and to my mind highly suspect. (An aside–what in the hell is a “bo-bo type”? Is that related to some species of Canadian waterfowl?).

    But so what. It’s a movie. Movies aren’t “reality.” They’re interpretations of it. Is your point that the movie is in fact about emotionless people doing their jobs? Fine. And what does that mean? What do the filmmakers have to say about that notion? As far as I can see, nothing at all.

    I’m not objecting to some nonsensical problem with the “world as a story.” I am interested in films that work in whatever way–however free of story, narrative, logic, you name it–they happen to work in, intentionally or not. Zero Dark Thirty fails in every regard I can think of.

    My only rage at the movie was how interminable it was. It’s preposterously boring, it’s terribly written, it has nothing to say, and–IN MY OPINION (how’s that?)–Kathryn Bigelow is, and always has been, a completely mediocre director whose most enjoyable movie, Point Break, is enjoyable for just how gob-smackingly awful it is.

    Finally, I apologize for ignoring your advice on how to treat other people’s opinions, and giving yours the close examination I have. Maybe I’ll think better of it in the future.

  8. WHAT THE HELL DOES THE NAME MEAN — I NEVER HEARD IT IN THE MOVIE — AND I SALUTE EVERY CRITIC THAT MENTIONS THE EXCESSIVE RUNNING TIME WITH NOTHING WORTH SEEING IN THIS NON DRAMATIC DRAMA.

    • if you mean the name Zero Dark Thirty, that was the time of the mission’s departure in military time: 00:30, i.e. 12:30 in the morning.

      perhaps an allusion to “it’s always darkest just before the dawn?” or more likely they just thought it sounded cool.

  9. Why oh fucking why do I keep checking out film reviews when they dupe me into watching crap like Zero ,,,blah. It was utterly uninvolving, deeply dull and just obnoxious. What a waste of time.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.