05 March 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Forgive me if I take the long way around this film review.

I find that books are inextricably linked to my important life events. For example, I learned that I had been accepted to law school when I got home from the library at 1:30 a.m. and listened to a voice mail from the Dean. I was researching The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom! for my final paper in an English class.

And, I specifically remember that the semester I decided not to go to medical school, I was reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Maybe it seems odd, but it’s still one of my favorite books, and that’s probably because there’s this paragraph in which the narrator perfectly explains why she could never be a doctor. She’s looking at the Periodic Table – all symbols and abbreviations, impersonal and sanitized – and just sees, in that moment, that she can’t spend the rest of her life caring about it. I felt validated, inasmuch as I could feel validated by a fictional character in a book whose author committed suicide by sticking her head in the oven, I suppose.

The semester after that, I took five English classes, so thrilled with the prospect of being able to take classes that I actually wanted to take that I apparently forgot to consider what it would actually mean to read five books every single week for 16 weeks in a row. Now, admittedly, some of those books were just awful; in fact, I’m pretty sure that every book I read for my British Literature class was terrible, and made more so by the professor, an American man in his sixties who was educated at Vanderbilt, but who at some point spent like six months at Oxford and in that brief time, developed an affected British accent so thick that it barely diminished despite him spending the subsequent four decades teaching at Alabama. But I digress.

The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks happened during my Shakespeare class in 2001. Literally, during. I left my classroom, walked out of Morgan Hall to my car, turned on the radio, and heard that One World Trade Center had collapsed. I remember that we were discussing Othello that day, which was notable because it is my most favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies. I also remember that we were reading e.e. cummings in my Poetry class that met the next morning; I know because we were assigned to imitate a poem of our choosing every week, and I imitated a cummings poem when I wrote about 9/11.

A few weekends ago, I finally saw Zero Dark Thirty. I had put it off for a while, mostly because I just wasn’t really ready to deal with it. I finally had to bite the bullet because the Academy Awards were airing the next Sunday, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to watch a movie that long during the week. I think the reasons for my hesitance are pretty obvious, but at the same time that I worried about revisiting the trauma of that time, I was also a little bit anxious about the scenes depicting torture.

Those scenes in particular had gotten quite a bit of bad press and brought back all the conflicting feelings I had when the practices at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo were exposed during the summer following my first year of law school. My guess is that Kathryn Bigelow anticipated that her audience may take issue with watching something that intensely graphic, but that she wouldn’t risk being called a hypocrite by making a film about the hunt for bin Laden but not addressing the systematic methodology of torture used to extract information about him. She’s smart. And because she’s smart, she starts her film with 9-1-1 recordings from the victims in the towers; she uses their words, their fear, the moments when they struggle to accept their own deaths, to help us accept (justify? rationalize?) what we will see later.

I can’t really say much else about Zero Dark Thirty that hasn’t been said someplace else. I enjoyed it, despite all the time I spent with my hands covering my mouth, and all the tears I cried – some in horror, some because I am so proud of those who serve our country. It is a fantastic film, and really, so much better than The Hurt Locker. I loved Silver Linings Playbook, and I think that Jennifer Lawrence is a fine young actress, but Jessica Chastain deserved the Oscar for Leading Actress.


  1. I LOVED Zero Dark Thirty as much as you can love a movie containing torture, terrorist bombings, and murder. I was mesmerized by the whole thing and struck by how isolated my life is from what goes on in other parts of the world. It also reminded me that just being an American makes me a target in some parts of the world. AND, most of all, it gave me HUGE respect for our military and CIA personnel. Keep blogging!!

    p.s. I have The Hurt Locker at home from Netflix - can't wait to watch it, too!

  2. Jeremy Renner is amazing in The Hurt Locker. It's also a great film, but Zero Dark Thirty just blows it away. I kept thinking - wow, so while I was in law school, and getting my hair done, and shopping for handbags, and moving to Arizona and stressing out about something really superficial, this woman was working in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iraq and wherever else, searching out a terrorist. "Humbling" doesn't seem quite strong enough a word.

  3. A suspenseful and well put together movie, this terrifically made film is very similar in many ways to The Hurt Locker, even though this one may be better. Good review.