Zero Dark Thirty and Baghad ER: Two Perspectives on Our 10 Years at War

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty was one of my most anticipated films of the year.

I hate war, especially this one, and truly believe that politicians should all be put in a Gladiator arena and sort out their problems themselves.  However, when someone messes around with us, I love the fact that the miliary exists. I was anxious to see how Kathryn Bigelow constructed a feature film that would convey the now almost Biblical events leading up to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.  I wanted to see how he was assassinated, since varied accounts appear to be circulating.

Let me preface by saying that I am not a political junkie: I am not well-read enough or educated enough about these events to differentiate all fact from fiction.  All I know is that the whole operation has taken on a covert and subversive tone: if one speaks that there was foul play surrounding the Seal Team Six mission, it seems you’re almost cast an outlier.

I have been holding off on reviewing Zero Dark Thirty for some time because, as I said, I can’t offer any insights into its authenticity – what was included, what was left out, etc.

I will say this: the film is good.

Bigelow has some balls for even attempting to tell this story.  I’m sure she knew that the pundits, news anchors, bloggers, and writers would have a field day tearing the film apart.  Still, I felt the film surpassed The Hurt Locker, but was still cloaked in a coldness that seems prevalent in Bigelow’s work.  Steve Coll of the New York Review of Books called the film “inauthentic and misleading,” three members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence committee suggest that the torture scenes in the film are “grossly innacurate and misleading,” according to the National Post the film is a “joke among Pakistanis,” and Rachel Wilson of PolicyMic.com says the film is “obsessed with trying to achieve perfection.”

To me, those who vehemently disagree with what is shown in the film dost protest too much, and I will tell you why.

War, by its very nature, is disturbing.  It’s dirty, messy, confusing, tragic, and stomach-churning.  We are doing things in the Middle East that no one will ever talk about.  The men and women over there have witnessed events that will haunt them for the rest of their lives, and the media is only too happy to cover that up and instead focus on Bigelow’s “inauthenticities” in her film.  I don’t blame them – instead of tackling the maelstrom that is the Iraq War, it’s much easier to target a female film-maker and make her the Hester Prynne for showing a few tame interrogation scenes.

Here is my brief overview of the film.

The Good:

Zero Dark Thirty Chastain

Cinematography, costumes, set design. I absolutely loved the film’s opening.  We don’t see anything, but we hear the terrified voice of Betty Ann Ong, a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 11 moments before the plane hit the World Trade Center.  Although 9/11 is still fresh in most of our minds, this audio footage serves as a reminder for why we entered the Middle East in the first place — at least, the reason why we were supposed to invade.

The costumes: Jessica Chastain looks the part of a young, competent CIA agent; the Seals look ever-imposing in their fatigues and hundreds of pounds of equipment, and even the Iraq civilians look true to life and not over-dramatized in their simple attire.

Zero Dark Thirty Joel Edgerton

Joel Edgerton: I was afraid that the actor portraying the leader of Seal Team Six would some “lets go and kill this motherfucker” chanting meat-head, but Edgerton is restrained, assertive, masculine, and if I may say so – really, really hot.

Zero Dark Thirty box

Interrogation scenes: I thought that these were, dare I say it, tastefully done.  There was no gratuitious violence or gore, and those who argue that the film grossly exaggerated the torture methods might be pulling the wool over their eyes.  It made me absolutely livid that George W. Bush called the Abu Ghraib scenes “abhorrent.”  This from the man whose vice president made a jingle out of the desire to bomb Iran.  Waterboarding, lest we forget, was not illegal in the early days of the war.  I thought the depictions were actually quite realistic looking.  Bottom line is this: none of us were actually there, so we don’t know exactly what happened.  But I went into this film expecting to be covering my eyes during the interrogation scenes, and I wasn’t.  As a matter of fact, if you want stomach-churning interrogation tactics, watch Body of Lies.   Frankly, when you look at images such as these, do you have to wonder if walking a prisoner around a concrete cell on a leash is far from the truth?

Interrogation

Interrogation

The money scene:  The scene in which Seals prepare for their mission to infiltrate Osama Bin Laden’s compound, is every bit as suspenseful as you’d expect.  The music and cinematography convey the underyling anxiety of the operation, and you can see that alhtough the Seals are completely adept and ready for this mission, that there is a lot riding on this single group of men.

Zero Dark Thirty Joel Edgerton helicopter

Osama Bin Laden’s body.  After the seals assassinate Bin Laden, we are shown his face only briefly, as Chastain’s Maya witnesses his body bag being unzipped so that she can identify his face.  The tone of this scene could not be more somber — instead of cheering for joy, Maya looks morose as she grimly confirms the fact: Bin Laden is dead.  To me, this reflects the tone that the news tried to convey to everyone around the world.  Instead of a rousing number of “Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead,” news anchors seemed tight-lipped about the event.  Pictures of the dead Bin Laden did not surface anywhere — interesting, since Michael Jackson’s death resulted in a flood of pictures depicting what we assume to be his actual corpse.  If you ask me, this is the fishiest part of the entire operation, but not hard to understand.  Let’s not forget that until 2009, Bush banned the news from photographing the American flag-draped coffins of the dead servicemen and women returning from the Middle East.  Why so hush-hush?  In my opinion, mugs, mouse pads, and tee-shirts hould have been printed with  Bin Laden’s dead face on it.  For heaven’s sake, this is the man responsible for September 11th and ultimately the reason why we have been at war for nearly 12 years. What gives?

The Weak Links:

Jessica Chastain Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain.  I know that her performance is being touted as the standout female lead of the year, but I found her well, for lack of a better word….chaste.  She was just a little bit too cold to convey the arc of emotions that Maya must have experienced through her character arc.  I would have preferred she go the way of Gillian Anderson in the X-Files: stoic, but with a passion, drive, and underlying strength.  To be fair, though, this film brought Maya’s character out of the dark for most of America.  I, for one, didn’t even know that behind this whole operation was a woman.  Of course.

Jason Clarke.  I expected the torturer of the film to be a little more gruff and macho, a little less pansy-like.  I couldn’t tell if Clarke’s character, Dan, enjoyed the interrogation scenes or if he was just doing it as part of his job.  He looked like someone who had a little bit of baggage, which I suppose added to the complexity of his character, but his performance just didn’t move me at all.

Zero Dark Thirty glowstick

Lifetime Movie Propaganda: Okay, I know that this film is probably filled with misrepresentations, mistakes, etc., but I am not privy to them all.  The one I will focus one comes during Seal Team Six’s raid on the Bin Laden compound.  Amidst the carnage, one of the Seals tries to calm a hysterical child by offering her his glow stick.  It’s definitely an “awww” moment as the handsome man in camoflauge attempts to shield this innocent child from the hell around her.  But it just angered me.  Not that there aren’t kind soldiers out there, but I doubt the Seals had time to engage in this type of Kodak moment while executing their mission that needed to accomplished on a time crunch, to say the least.

Overall, I’d say this film is a solid 7/10.  I much preferred it to Bigelow’s earlier Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker.

Bagdad ER

Interestingly, I decided to rent the lesser-known Bagdad ER from my local library a few weeks ago.

This television documentary, televised on HBO in 2006, depicts the Iraq war from a small military hospital in Bagdad.

Bagdad ER

I think that everyone should see this film. 

Bagdad ER shows what the news has refused to show us for nearly twelve years now – the dirty and disturbing reality of war, and its impact on soldiers, some who look like they enlisted the day after their high school graduation.  The Bagdad Emergency Room sees these boys at their worst: their limbs being sawed off and tossed into medical waste garbage bags, burns covering their entire bodies, two twenty-year old boys holding each others hand and crying like infants over the death of their friend and fellow soldier.  It’s more upsetting than any torture scene – real or fabricated – can even touch.

This documentary gets a solid 10 from me, as it’s unbiased and not political in any way.  These doctors see everyone: both the civilians and the soldiers, and I think they can all agree that war is hell, no matter what side you’re fighting for.

Here’s my opinion:

If you want to talk about inauthenticity and unnecessary disturbance, then end the war.  There is nothing glorious about the way these soldiers die.  Think hard about what it is we are fighting for, and whether or not it’s worth it.

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