This isn’t a full-blown review, more a quick post just looking at one aspect of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty - the idea that this is an “adult” movie.
By “adult”, I’m not talking about its rating, I’m talking about the various reviews that have lauded the film as “grown-up” or even “sophisticated”. Such examples can be seen here, and in Rotten Tomatoes’ summary, where the film is described as “intelligent”. Of course, if some monkeys in a zoo figure out how to distract the humans and steal their food they’re “intelligent”, but there’s no doubting that here it’s used in a snobby, almost elitest fashion. Critics seem unanimous in their assessment that Zero Dark Thirty is an adult film.
Having watched the film, I cannot fathom where this idea has come from, other than perhaps a couple of rogue, early reviewers inadvertently setting a bandwagon in motion. It seems to be that the following string of spurious logic has been followed in order to reach this conclusion:
- War/ action films tend to be a bit formulaic and over the top
- There is no subject more rife for a hyperbolic and hysterical treatment than the international manhunt for the most wanted man in the world, Osama Bin Laden
- Zero Dark Thirty isn’t hyperbolic and hysterical
- Therefore it must be “sophisticated” and “adult” and “grown-up”
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The torture scenes are certainly problematic, but due to their ambiguous nature – ambiguity does not equal intelligence, it merely means the film is leaving it open-ended and resisting falling on either side of the fence. The debate around the controversial scenes can be boiled down to “is it right or wrong?”. In the same vein, the fact that the film never resorts to any fist-pumping, “America, fuck yeah!” style nationalistic sentiments is apparently a sign of its educated approach. Just because a film isn’t stupid doesn’t make it smart, either.
Going back to the second point above, it’s very clear that Zero Dark Thirty could have been a ridiculous, testosterone-fuelled, triumphalist wild goose chase shoot-’em-up, but the fact that it isn’t shouldn’t mean that it’s immediately held up as a bastion for grown-up film making. Clearly, the critics have landed on this idea based on the fact that much of the film focuses on Maya (Jessica Chastain) efforts to chase (often false) leads in order to track down Bin Laden, rather than dramatic raids and explosions. Ironically, many of the critics have focused the highest praise on the final sequences of the actual mission, and rightly so. That this section, by far and away the most interesting and exciting of the film, is also the most “juvenile” (to appropriate the language of the film’s advocates) is an irony that seems to have escaped many commentators.
Ultimately, many of the things I’d associate with an intelligent, adult piece of film making – measured character development, a knowing command of the audience – are distinctly absent from Zero Dark Thirty. Maya is little more than a cipher for general American frustrations at the length and futility of the search, and appears to have little motivation other than being a textbook workaholic. I mention the film’s knowledge and use of its audience’s emotions because the fact was, personally, I found myself constantly glancing at my watch throughout its gargantuan 2 hour 50 minute run time. I doubt I’m alone in saying I was bored by the first two hours of the film. If that makes me unworthy of such a grown-up film, then so be it. The brilliant Argo allocates similar portions of time to its planning and execution stages as Zero Dark Thirty, and yet maintains a taught, gripping effect throughout, something that Bigelow’s film can only dream of.
What do you think? Do you think Zero Dark Thirty is a grown-up way of looking at the issues it raises, or do you think it’s getting undue praise?