Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty Reaction Review

             Sometimes you want to know as little as possible about a movie before you see it. The less you know the more surprising the movie is, for better or for worse. Then there are ones like Zero Dark Thirty where prior knowledge amplifies a films impact greatly. 

The Rewrite: A Real-Life Twist Ending

Zero Dark Thirty has one of the most fascinating behind the scenes stories I've ever heard. Based on recent historical events, it was originally going to be about the hunt and failure to capture Osama bin Laden. The end was planned to be tragic, with him continuing to elude our military intelligence despite their best efforts. 

But just as they were finishing the script and getting ready to shoot, America actually got him.

Some would think this would break a film that’s all about a frustrating hero’s struggle that ends in failure, but they decided to go full speed ahead. The ending was changed to reflect their efforts paying off, but the majority of the rest of the film was kept the same, following setback after setback.

It's all culminates with the now-famous SEAL Team 6 raid on the bin Laden compound and his take down. The story is told in a very objective, matter-of-fact manner as it follows the CIA agent in charge of finding him, Maya. Maya is not her real life name, as the identity of the agent currently working in our government is top secret. As the audience, we go through her experiences including misinformation, speculation, bad leads, bombings at buildings she was in, assassination attempts on her life, and finding bin Laden’s location.

I cannot emphasize enough how differently this story is depicted from normal films. It doesn't try to take a stance or make an opinion on these events. It shows you what happens and lets you decide for yourself. If Al Qaeda watched this they would see it as a legit, intentional tragedy on how despite their efforts their great leader was killed. Every person watching this will see it differently because the movie doesn't judge or preach. 

The Fall of Osama bin Laden

The number one reason to see this film is the assault on bin Laden's home fortress. It's kind of like the movie Act of Valor but better. The whole sequence pays extreme attention to detail and the methodology of how the operation went.

In fact, this part is only a few minutes shorter than the actual mission went. So you really are watching almost exactly how it happened. Almost. Every shot fired, door busted, and room cleared.

All the action throughout the movie is excellent, on the mission or otherwise. While the explosions look realistic, it's really the sound editing that stands out. This is why it got an Oscar nomination in that category. Shooting and explosions are loud, sharp, booming, discomforting, and really rattle you every time. Forget Call of Duty and Battlefield. When guns get shot in real life it's scary, and this film really captures that. 

The director, Kathryn Bigelow, really outdid herself on this scene. This depiction of the mission is so well-done that I doubt it will ever be topped. The realness of this film makes it better than most fictional Hollywood spectacles. 

Some films conceptually operate under the practice of “If it’s been done before, do it anyway but better.” The sheer awesomeness of America bringing justice to the mastermind behind 9/11 demands that films be made on it. And yet, ZDT’s version of it can’t be outdone. I have no idea how you would do it otherwise and it’s going to be pathetic when future films try and fail. 

Controversy: Journalism or Art? Or Both?

 Finally, there is controversy surrounding the facts of this film, particularly the interrogation scenes. It's not that our government tortures certain prisoners; everyone's known that for years. 
The CIA says that such enhanced interrogations did not occur at the CIA black sites the film depicts, which were more controlled and didn't involve what some would call torture. The interrogation methods shown in the movie were really used more at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.
In addition, Maya did not use torture to get information that led to Bin Laden’s capture. And the connection between information obtained at black sites and the capture is not so straight-forward and clear.
On a less legal note, the real-life Seal Team Six carried out the operation almost entirely without talking, using hand signals. For that inaccuracy, I felt the film’s version had them speaking very rarely and the idea of silence and stealth never truly left.
“So what, it’s a film,” you’re thinking. “It’s been altered for Hollywood.” Well, that might be no problem for other movies, but this is a little different. Bigelow (who’s done and amazing job across the board here) has called this “a reported film” and has paid great attention to facts and details. She’s prided herself on being accurate and objective. From what I’ve heard, most of it is pretty spot-on. While I have great respect for her craft, once you’ve opened the door of journalistic truthfulness, it cannot be closed.
I don’t know the reason Bigelow chose to make the black site interrogations that way, whether it was a mistake or intentional. But I do know this has big implications on a debate about artistic films tied to journalistic reporting and about such a film’s responsibility to the exact truth versus creative freedom.
I was about to write endlessly about my opinion and speculation on this topic, but then I remembered the advice “know your audience”. I’m pretty sure you don’t care, so I’ll spare you for brevity’s sake.
All I need to say further is “It’s great, go see it.” No really, you must see this in theaters because of the action, sounds and the low lighting. And if you miss it, catch it at the dollar theaters. And if you miss that, see it in a home with some killer surround sound setup. I’m sure the behind the scenes extras will be amazing too. I seriously doubt there will be a better film on this subject.

On a final, random note:
During the final mission when bin Laden’s grandkids were crying, it sounded almost exactly like the little sisters from Bioshock without the mutated audio effects. Disturbing.

Watched in theaters. Reaction reviews are written immediately after movie is finished.

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