Ian Berke, realtor and real estate in San Francisco
Ian's Listings
SF listings
About SF
About Ian
Ian's List
Film Reviews
Stone Books
Legal & Privacy

tel 415.921.7300
cell 415.860.2777

DRE #444020

Film Review

Zero Dark Thirty

Very few commercially successful film directors are women. For the past 25 years, only about 8% of the 250 top grossing films (including foreign films) in America have had female directors. The exception to this is documentaries, a genre in which women are well represented. Foreign directors, such as Claire Denis, Jane Campion, Agnes Varda, Catherine Brelliat, Lina Wertmuller, Susanne Bier, and others, are well known to American film lovers, but the list of American directors is far smaller. Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Debra Granik (Winter's Bone), and Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) are all well known, but Bigelow is the only female director to have won an Oscar (2009) for best director for her Hurt Locker. Without being sexist, it seemed unlikely that a woman director could achieve such success with action films, which are totally male dominated. Yet her film successes have included K-19:The Widowmaker (2002), a powerful story of a Russian captain on a doomed nuclear submarine. This was followed by The Hurt Locker (2009), which follows a bomb squad in Iraq, and was a critical and commercial success, winning numerous awards. And now her Zero Dark Thirty, which follows the long trail that lead to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Bigelow has a knack of dramatizing current conflict events in an action film mode, yet realistic in a way that few others films have been. Clearly, this is a director with a load of talent, as well as an excellent screenwriter, Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker).

Zero Dark Thirty opens with no images, only a black screen as we hear the real phone calls from people trapped in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. We listen to heart rending cries for help, and from those fearing they are about to die, telling their families how much they love them. The scene then shifts to a "black site" in Saudi Arabia, with an obviously tortured prisoner strung up in a concrete room, as he is taunted and further tortured by a CIA agent. This torture scene in the early part of the film is graphic and brutal, yet probably understated. Each scene is announced by a title, usually giving the date and location, which gives the film a documentary quality. Then a shift to Pakistan, with the chaotic and colorful street scenes giving a sense of the cities. A young American female CIA agent, Maya (played by Jessica Chastain), attractive with her long red hair, but severe, has been attempting to track Osama Bin Laden since the Trade Center attack. She is convinced that he is not hiding in the mountains, but in or near a major city, because he needs to be able to communicate with Al Qaeda cells. No one else, especially her bosses, think this is likely, and although impressed with her persistence, think she is wrong. She is teased for expecting to find that "needle in a haystack". But one of her bosses observes that "she is a killer". In addition, Maya has spunk, as shown by her helping with torture of a key prisoner. But she understands that gentleness often can accomplish what force cannot: truthful information from the prisoners. She gives a prisoner some food and a cigarette, and elicits important information. But most important, she understands that the best route to finding Bin Laden will be through identifying the couriers he uses to communicate. The film develops a rhythm between terror attacks, CIA offices, and black sites, such as in Poland. The various terror attacks were real events, such as the London bombings in 2005, and the black sites for interrogation that would be forbidden in the United States, also real. One scene shows CIA agents watching a monitor as President Obama speaks at a press conference stating that we do not torture. The scene is very short but in that instant says much about the disconnect between official statements and the reality. There is considerable location shooting in Jordan, which had to substitute for Pakistan as it was simply too dangerous to actually film in Pakistan.

This complex story continues over a number of years, in CIA offices, in various countries, but eventually Maya manages to identify a man who is believed to be Bin Laden's courier. They track him to a large walled house outside a Pakistani city, ironically very close to the Pakistani equivalent of West Point. Indications are strong that Bin Laden lives in this house but no one can confirm it with certainty. Eventually the CIA is able to convince the White House that the risk of not acting on this intelligence is worse than an attempt that fails. The raid is to be accomplished with special operations forces, using helicopters modified to be quieter than conventional craft, with those characteristic angular radar deflecting shapes. The raid is planned for night time, and is actually filmed with night vision cameras, which adds to the realism. A full scale replica of the walled compound and house were constructed in Jordan and used for the film and the raid. Like her other films, this has a reality level that makes you want to take a shower after seeing the film to wash off the dust, sweat and blood. Bigelow's penchant for slow motion in some scenes is dramatic and effective as it lets us see in a way impossible in reality, and helps us understand what. She also uses long distance shots to show what would be horrific close up, such as an aerial shot of a car bombing. But it is very clear that the filmmakers had excellent, possibly inside information about aspects of the raid, and indeed the entire story.

Even though anyone who has ever read a newspaper in the past five years knows the beginning and the end of the story, Bigelow has created a level of tension that is almost unendurable. And even more so just before terror attacks that we recognize immediately by their date and location. The film has a huge cast, most of whom we see for only for a few moments of screen time, then they're gone. Acting is quite good, but only Chastain is able to develop her character. Chastain is convincing, yet in the end she remains inscrutable, apparently friendless, but obsessed with tracking Bin Laden. In another good casting choice, James Gandolfini plays Leon Panetta, then head of the CIA. Their physical resemblance is remarkable.

Zero Dark Thirty has sparked considerable discussion and criticism about the use of torture. Initially in the film it appears that torture did elicit important information and was more effective than deceptive and "soft" interrogations. But there is a mixed message here as Maya succeeds in obtaining a key piece of information by simply befriending and deceiving a prisoner. Yet the impression from the film is that torture can be effective. This is contradicted by many interrogation experts, especially the FBI, who have long used softer techniques. These experts are clear that intelligent questioning is always more effective than torture. To say nothing of the moral costs to our country of torture. Further, three Senators, including Diane Feinstein, have announced their intention of investigating whether the director and screenwriters used classified information, and if so, how they got it. This testifies to the accuracy of the film, but the Senators' efforts would be far more useful directed toward actually investigating the incidents of torture, rather than focusing on the filmmakers. Bigelow deserves much credit for showing the darker side and the costs of this "war on terror" as well as its victories. She implicitly raises the question, not often enough asked in the media, of whether the death of Bin Laden, ten years after the Twin Towers, was really the milestone that we celebrate.

A masterful film: powerful, timely, tension filled, and visually sumptuous, almost war porn. Long, 157 minutes, but never slow. Zero Dark Thirty is important and very worthwhile seeing, regardless of one's political views. Opened two weeks ago in LA and NY in order to qualify for the 2013 Oscars, which it seems likely to win in several categories. In SF just opened at the Kabuki and the Centre (Bloomingdale's), and in Marin at the Century (Corte Madera).

Return to the List of Film Reviews

Home | Ian's Listings | SF listings | Rentals | Architecture | About SF | About Ian |
Ian's List | Legal & Privacy | ian@ianberke.com | © 2009- ianberke.com