Zero Dark Dirty

 

After essentially boycotting “Zero Dark Thirty” for weeks on account of its endorsement of torture, someone pointed out Michael Moore’s defense of it: It’s a film that proves the opposite, he says, and is more about how men ignore women in the workplace. I found “The Hurt Locker” terrific, even after an actor told me that his brother was in Special Ops, and that it took too many liberties for him to get into it as a film. “So what?” I figured. Should we let that prevent us from appreciating a well-told story. And yet here I was, with my own ideological axe to grind, shunning a film I hadn’t seen yet.

So I finally arrived, with high expectations. Michael Moore got it pretty much right, but the film grated on me nonetheless.

I often think that people who go to theaters are like people who vote in primaries. We think of ourselves as insiders, tastemakers, viewers whose ticket purchases and opinions set the agenda for the greater public. Arrogant? Yes. But it also means that we get a very different viewing experience when we see a film at the beginning of its theatrical release, when the jury of opinion is still out, versus the end, when ten of us sit in a vast theater whose manager wonders why he didn’t book something newer. (I guess that’s like voting in the New York Presidential primary!) Add the passing of the Oscars to that swing, and the wondrous new cinematic sensation seems smaller: its post-theatrical marketing plan is already in place, and you’re just there to attend a film.

Not that I’m complaining! Anything that’s heavy on the cinematography is going to be more spectacular on a giant screen, and that’s a good enough reason to hurry up and catch it before it’s consigned to home video. These are the films I find myself rushing to see at the Village East or the Quad or other NYC theaters where important films go to pasture for a while before they leave theaters.

“Zero Dark Thirty,” for all its “based on true events” pretensions, was full of moments that happen in movie genre-reality, but generally don’t happen in reality-reality. I can forgive one or so of these, but at two and a half hours it expects you to swallow too many of them. God bless screenwriter Mark Boal (who also wrote “Hurt Locker”and “In the Valley of Elah”) for bringing the Iraq War and the uglier side of the War on Terror to American screens, but he went so Hollywood this time around, it felt insulting.

When the CIA heroine and her best work pal happen to be in the dining room for a hotel bombing, I said “Okay, we’ll give you one. Maybe it even actually happened.” But when that same pal was present for a bombing and betrayal that even my companion who didn’t remember the headlines could see coming minutes ahead of time, I felt depleted. When the new CIA station chief had his desk-pounding scene, it felt unearned. (Michael Moore thought this was the hidden tribute to Obama, the speech that says “don’t torture, be detectives.”) Even if we give him that, militants soon attack the heroine directly as she’s driving through an embassy gate, and I was feeling, “Just get on with it.”

The thematic crux is: Sometimes you’re just so sure of an educated hunch that you have to go with it. Or: The story of a woman who guessed right. Which feels so trite after watching militants get tortured for 45 minutes. When Bigelow takes control of the film from the writer and turns it into a play-by-play of the night raid, it seems like a creative solution to the fact that he’d beaten this particular narrative horse to death already.

I can’t help comparing this movie, unfavorably, to Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” (written by Scott Z. Burns), which had the same “just the facts, ma’am” air about it, but challenged you to appreciate the heroism of people who weren’t necessarily provoked by an escalating spiral of vendettas, but rather just doing their jobs, with efficiency and some extra passion because they knew they were onto something important. Something tells me that’s how bin Laden got found. It’s just my hunch, and I’m going to go with it.

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