Humans have found a way, compressed to virtual 1s and 0s, to make the world “flat.” That obstacles like time and space once prevented information from traveling from New York to New Jersey the long way round seems, now, and soon to our children’s children, ancient. That every human doesn’t have access to his virtual, visceral surroundings is a tragedy, to some, though the very ones that can’t know where the nearest coffee shop is have no access to the raw good two hectares away. In a way, we’ve never been further apart.
Add in narrators, who explain the event all (some) (very few) of us are seeing along with them, in misleading detail. They don’t mean to mislead, of course, but can’t help focusing an event, that for all intents and purposes, is happening through their own personal experience, the experience and profit/information motive of their employer, and the legal directive from anywhere else. Rip these bits up, reassemble them, and remove much of the original source, and you have a sheeny Zero Dark Thirty.
There is no doubt that this film was crafted by an auteur at the height of her craft. Director Kathryn Bigelow knows how to make a film with vision, with gumption, and with bite. Her films are visceral and award-worthy: The Hurt Locker won Best Picture just four years before this craft; it was made without the future history of bin Laden’s postmature death, which would happen, according to all available, corroborated evidence, two years later, at a fortified complex in Abbottabad, Pakistan. This is a movie whose premise is so highly contested that it would require wireframing from steel nerves to pass it off as anything more than: before there was bin Laden, and after there wasn’t. But the audience cares about CIA analyst Maya and they care about the piecing together of this narrative, true or not. It cares more about the narrator, unreliable almost by definition, than it does the facts. Zero Dark Thirty is a promise fulfilled to an audience that asked nothing in return.
The world is supposed to be more secure but centralized power in the hands of a few will make attacks likely, expected, as long as there is more power to consolidate and less coordinated opposition to it. The way our system is designed, complexity will continue to increase, and there will be more opportunity for individuals to claim control, for a price. Advanced tech is supposed to solve this problem, too: a “decentralized” internet will remove the power of single actors and oligarchs to exploit those without power. By democratizing the web, the world becomes a sort of organized chaos; because no one is in charge, everyone has the power to control their own information.
A thought: if this technology were available seventeen years ago, would al-Qaeda have been able to kill millennia of human experience? Would it have taken us 10 years to kill him? Would Zero Dark Thirty have had the same pressing experience to record and reflect?
It is hard to imagine a world where complete decentralization will miss the mark of “complete,” and a cornering-failure will leave the world vulnerable to power vacuum. Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty is about reliability, self-actualization, and giving up attempting to wrangle the world into manageable 1s and 0s. Maya can’t let go because it is easier to chase surety than it is ether. Her tenacity, at least according to this film (she’s a composite character of many capable, female CIA operatives), is infinitely relatable and serves as the hook for the film; it is what makes Zero Dark Thirty a narrative film rather than a documentary.
This film, probably through no fault of its well-intentioned producers, was criticized for wholesale inaccuracy and for pushing a political agenda. Two questions subsist: is it possible to tell this story accurately and does it matter? If the answer is yes to both; that is a documentary. If the answer is yes to one but not the other, you’ve got a middling mess of an expensive film. But if the answer is no to both, you’ve got a quasi-fictional, jingoistic drama with the explosiveness to make a difference; or you’ve got a well-meaning journalist livetweeting the fall of the Berlin Wall. The high-wire act makes Zero Dark Thirty a fantastic film.
Argo won Best Picture in 2012 and for all accounts it was a fine movie. Ben Affleck is a competent director and he produced Argo with clarity. Its politics are 35 years old, and its caper-like narrative is also inconsistent with the facts, as reported, of the history. It is a worse-executed Zero Dark Thirty, but a simpler connection to make between USA equals good, Iran equals bad. Ultimately, Argo‘s win limps alongside Silver Linings Playbook, Lincoln, The Life of Pi, and the underrated Django Unchained. Zero Dark Thirty will always be Kathryn Bigelow’s second best movie, but it should have been ’12’s best.
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