Hey Ingrid! This one’s for you!
The NYT did a beautiful series in 2001 where they watched famous classic films with filmmakers; they paired All the President’s Men with Steven Soderbergh. I bring this up apropos of Zero Dark Thirty, which I saw last night. What Soderbergh says applies almost exactly:
‘I guess what impressed me most about ‘All the President’s Men,’ and what still impresses me, is that there is really no reason why this movie should work,” Mr. Soderbergh said. ”It’s a story that everyone knew. I mean, the movie was released in 1976 and President Nixon had just resigned in 1974. And the movie climaxes with the protagonists’ making a huge mistake. And yet it works so completely. I never tire of watching it.”
Many writers and reviewers have noted ZD30‘s debt to All the President’s Men, as a procedural film about very recent current events. But I want to get into this a little bit, because Zero Dark Thirty does not work so completely.
ZD30 is the second of director Bigelow’s collaborations with screenwriter Mark Boal (Bigelow distinctly superior talent in the partnership). In both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark 30 we follow single-minded anti-heroes shaped and sculpted by their role as front-line fighters in the current reality of 21st century American warfare. This pursuit suffocates any other personal qualities they might have possessed, making them unfit for any kind of civilian life or human intercourse that follows.
ZD30 does manage to keep the viewer engaged and on edge for two-and-a-half suspenseful hours, even as it takes us through 10 years of very recent history, leading, inexorably and obviously, to Usama Bin Laden’s death. Time, and our hero’s search for Bin Laden, is marked by terrorist attacks, each of which contributes to the urgency of her obsession. It is incredibly well directed–the Bin Laden raid is crafted with great care and virtuosity.
In All the President’s Men, the hunt of the story–the culture of the newsroom, the coping strategies, the internal debates, how our lead characters learn together to make this story happen–is everything. The ONLY time in the whole film that the film tips its hand as to the greater importance of Woodward and Bernstein’s work is at the very end, with the famous line, delivered in such a brilliant deadpan and with no swelling violins by Jason Robards as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee:
“Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”
That balance–between the hunt and what it means–is off in Zero Dark Thirty. And as such, we lose the humor, the hypnotic quality, the tension of watching people at work. When people argue that the movie glorifies torture, they are missing something. The film doesn’t glorify torture–it presents a CIA in which torture and black sites are a simple reality–and the directness with which it portrays that ends up being a far more effective a critique than swelling violins ever would be.
The problem, I think, comes down to Jessica Chastain’s performance as CIA agent Maya. As much as the filmmakers try to telegraph that she is NOT A ROMANTIC LEAD, as much as they tell you she is ALL ABOUT HER WORK, they can’t help themselves, in the script or on the screen.
Chastain’s beauty on camera, shining through even the bug-eyed, robotic intensity of her performance–the scenes of her curled up like a perfect little kitten, sleeping in her office or on her couch because she just can’t be bothered with a bed–the perfectly styled hair at totally unbelievable times–her final slow fragile trembling approach to UBL’s body bag–all of that shows the filmmakers’ need to justify and underline her lack of a personal life because of some messianic commitment to killing Bin Laden. It drains the procedure, it justifies the procedure with beauty, and that is what, ultimately, undermines the film.