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Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn Bigelow

January 22, 2013

What makes a film? the result of a number of diegetic and non-diegetic informations; the first information we receive watching Zero Dark Thirty is a non-diegetic one – an information which is not part of the story in front of the camera but it has been inserted on the screen by the person behind the camera – it can be done for different purposes, in this case I’d say its scope is to augment our appreciation of the movie:

“The following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events”

The last information we get from this film comes when the end titles are already over, after the usual Dolby, SDDS logos et cetera, so we can assume 99.9% of the spectators of the film will not read this other piece of non-diegetic information:

“While this story is based on actual events, certain characters, characterizations, incidents, locations and dialogue were fictionalized or invented for purpose of dramatization.”

I’m not so naïf to ignore that a film is never a truthful account of anything, so maybe I should forget both non-diegetic informations and evaluate Zero Dark Thirty as just a movie, but is it possible to ignore that “the first hand accounts of actual events and their fictionalization for purpose of dramatization” are only the ones provided and approved by the C.I.A.? This may not be propaganda à la Goebbels but it is a version of the story approved by a secret service agency of the US. This is fiction, it deserves to be analyzed as such.

Zero Dark Thirty is the story of a manhunt: the US of A versus Osama Bin Laden. So this is a fiction where we know how it ends, we know how it started, we know much of the news between these two moments: what will be in the film and what not? and why? and how does it work? After the “actual events” information we are exposed to a black screen, then we hear a compilation of sounds and voices – real sounds and real voices – while a white phrase informs us it’s September 11, 2001 – this sober approach will characterize the entire film – there is no spectacular violence here, nor soaring music. Two minutes later one more white phrase on a black screen will adjourn us: 2 years later. We are now in Afghanistan and a C.I.A. agent is busy torturing a prisoner: why the two years jump? why jump two wars and the start of the manhunt? Many plausible answers here, from my point of view this is a smart manipulative choice to downplay the use of torture: placing it right after the voices of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. The torture scene is also the moment when we are introduced to Maya (Jessica Chastain). From this moment onward we follow Maya’s evolution from a new C.I.A. recruit to “someone who’s pretty important, who gets an entire airplane for herself” – this is how her pilot assesses her: but how she got to this point and what we learn about her along the film? the first one is easy, she found Bin Laden, the answer to the second one is even easier: pretty nothing. The time scansion is interesting: 2 minutes are for 9/11, 52 minutes cover the useless gathering of intelligence until 2009 – when her colleague and only friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) is killed in a terrorist attack against the C.I.A. and the episode renews Maya’s determination to find and kill Bin Laden – then we are one hour into the film and we are in 2011, where we’ll stay until its ending with one hour dedicated to the intelligence work to locate Bin Laden and the final 30 minutes to the assault on the residential compound in Abbottabad performed by NSWDG.

This is bad fiction, it’s a disjointed narrative: Maya’s character should keep it together but how could she when she has no real life of her own? we follow eight years of her life and we know nothing about her: why a beautiful and intelligent woman decides to annihilate her personal life for this manhunt? When we meet her – the torture scene – she is new, but she already means business, while her colleague tortures the prisoner she looks uneasy, but we soon discover (Maya’s reply to the prisoner “you need to be truthful”) it was due only to clumsiness from her being new to the business. The assault on the compound is a beautiful piece of filmmaking but it is also the most disjointed piece of this disjointed film. I guess Zero Dark Thirty can work with an American audience – with persons that for various reasons including personal ones have naturally strong feelings for this story and this will help and motivate them to fill the gaps in the film – but what is the relevance of the plot other than: don’t miss with the US ’cause sooner or later you’re gonna pay for it? Isn’t Maya’s unyieldingness a living expression of this very American way of being?

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