|Scene from Zero Dark Thirty|
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way.
Subject: Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
Theory: Zero Dark Thirty is the best movie about 9/11.
It's hard to believe that the events of September 11, 2001 are officially turning 15 this year. It was a day that unfortunately defined America as well as the bombing of Pearl Harbor, or the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Everyone alive remembers where they were when it happened and the political climate that followed. It created one of the most uncertain times in American history, and the ramifications are still being felt to this day. While some could argue that society has improved vastly over the past decade, there are certain underlying principles that continue to impact our judgment of the government as well as each other. I was a child, 12-years-old, at the time and I was already unsure of the world and even less sure about what the consequences of seeing the Twin Towers collapse actually were.
To some extent, it does feel like cinema has had to take up a responsible mantle when discussing September 11. Even if it took many years before it became a regular occurrence, the conversation had to be held. While films like The 25th Hour and Fahrenheit 9/11 were released relatively quick, the artful and straightforward stories about that day weren't as quick to come. Even when they did, there were movies like American Sniper - which garnered controversy for depicting "America's deadliest sniper" as a war hero through Clint Eastwood's miserable gaze. On the plus side, progressive culture has made it tougher to get away with depicting an entire race as evil. On the other side, patriotism mistook negative opinions of American Sniper as being disloyal to war veterans. It's a move that once got Seth Rogen banned from a restaurant simply because of a misunderstood comparison to Inglourious Basterds. To some extent, the reaction to the 2014 movie is itself not too far off from how America was at the time.
One could easily count every Iraq War movie on this list of being a 9/11 movie. While they all have their valid points, I am choosing to not count them. Films like Jarhead, The Hurt Locker, or the aforementioned American Sniper all depict one side of 9/11, which is the war. It's an integral part, but I feel like to understand the impact of 9/11, one has to find a film about the strife on the homeland. This could be about the day of, or anything that can be found in the aftermath. While the choices tend to be small, I think that they all have their point. United 93 showed the chaos (if in an exploitative way) in the plane flying to impending doom. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close showed the grief of children losing loved ones. Man on Wire showed the power and symbolism of the World Trade Center. Each of these films have varying degrees of powerful cinema, but I think only one comes close to understanding the atmosphere: director Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty.
One could easily first address the detractors. It's not entirely a true story. Even Jessica Chastain's Maya is a composite character. It also became controversial during its December 2012 release for painting the American military as violent and obsessive. Others simply found its one track mind of hunting down Osama Bin Laden to be a bit boring. Speaking as writer Mark Boal also received flack for his journalistic credibility on The Hurt Locker, one could easily predict how faithful Zero Dark Thirty was to history. Yes, Bin Laden was murdered by Seal Team Six. That much is true. But what about everything else? Why does it matter if accuracy isn't the top priority here? To that, I give one simple answer. This wasn't specifically about telling the truthful story of fighting terrorism. This was the story of America's obsession with ending it once and for all by going after their top leader.
This is no more evident than in the finale. Having gotten her way and having seen Bin Laden's corpse, Maya boards a plane. She is a hero for dedicating the past decade to hunting down this man. However, there's now an emptiness in her life. Where is she going to go now that she has solved her problem? Considering that Bigelow's direction makes the story play like a procedural epic, the absence of weight suddenly makes everything more self-reflective. What was it all for? The answer isn't clear, though the depiction of America is far from the flattering way that cinema could paint them. The film opens with presumed terrorists being tortured for information, being shouted at by Jason Clarke as he screams "When was the last time that you saw Bin Laden." It's uncomfortable and shocking, as it should be. The results aren't necessarily fruitful either. Yet this is the America that Zero Dark Thirty portrays. It's one where there are no easy answers. You have to bludgeon them out of people.
Like most movies based around 9/11, there is a powerful montage in which the events are shown for context. There's chaos, and the tragedy develops over the simple need for answers. Who did this? Why did they do this? How do we stop them from doing it again? As a viewer, it would be difficult to go into this film without wanting some comparative catharsis. To most people, Bin Laden is the source of uncertainty and misery in America. He deserves his fate. Maya embodies a lot of that tension with the simple truth that she wants to kill, kill, kill. When troops wonder why they're still hunting him after years of no results, one of them points to Maya and says "Her confidence." She is the figure who believes that killing Bin Laden will bring some massive change. This isn't a depiction of America or its military system solely as heroes, but more along the lines of the old phrase "You have to get your hands dirty." There's no easier way to approach such subject.
Even if Maya is a government official, she feels like the moderating mouthpiece. She isn't quite respected for her dedication until it pays off. She yells her demands when things get desperate. She's also not entirely successful in preventing further chaos. It is a frustrating game, and one that comes with plenty of paranoia. She may have roadblocks along the way, but her obsession comes through clear in everything that she does. Even her asexual lifestyle seems to pit Bin Laden as her true love. Not in the sense that they will marry, but that she would love to strangle him personally. Whether or not the viewer is as passionately out to destroy terrorism is up for each individual. However, the desire for truth and justice is something that thrives in American idealism. This version just happens to be a bit more unapologetic and violent.
To be fair, there has been terrorism before and long after Bin Laden. However, 9/11 is an event that ratcheted up tension and produced a unified frustration. Considering that this was released a mere year after Bin Laden's real life death, it still felt crucial to the zeitgeist. It was a moment of triumph for the nation. As the five years since that death have shown, he isn't the end of the line as Zero Dark Thirty would paint Maya's story as. There's many more terrorists to go after. However, Boal's way of creating him as the MacGuffin that fills the void in Maya's life is a brilliant tactic, and one that may as well serve as the meditative device by which America dealt with the grief. There may be more personal accounts of 9/11 to choose from, but I feel like none come close to capturing, even if metaphorically, the uncertainty that came with those events.
I know that there's still the complaints that it's inaccurate or boring or violent. To be honest, I think that these are all complimentary to the film for the sake of telling a cohesive story. One could easily look at director Oliver Stone's JFK and accuse it of being fairly inaccurate. You wouldn't be wrong, but I still argue that the film's point isn't to recount Kennedy's assassination in detail, but to show how America coped with the loss through obsessive manners. Zero Dark Thirty is very similar when applied to 9/11 and the Iraq War. Thankfully, Bigelow's direction is just as artful and well executed as they come. She makes the final raid scene so tense thanks to excellent pacing. The facts may not be all there nor is a convincing Bin Laden corpse, but the mission has been accomplished, resulting in a big and scary question: "Now what?"
If you live your life trying to fight one cause, it is almost a nightmare to see the cause succeed. Even if it betters the world, to be proven right after years of denial is itself unnerving. Terrorism may never be officially over, but the symbolic death of Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty paints perfectly how triumphant yet anticlimactic the experience can be. We want to make the world better, but what about when it gets there? Where do you go? Thanks to Chastain's great performance, the film manages to be about more than government and military operations. Even if just symbolically, it manages to be about America's need for answers at any cost. It may not be a pretty film nor one that paints your typical American hero, but it definitely serves as the basis by which all 9/11 films should strive to be. Few come close (maybe The 25th Hour), but I'm sure that we're not too far off from getting the films that this time period deserves.