Zero Dark Thirty fails to deliver on many fronts. One of its great failures is in not effectively creating sympathy for our main characters. Now I have said this to people and been told – ‘Oh that’s just really clever. They want an unsympathetic portrayal of the Americans. However that simply is not the case. The film tries at multiple points, rather aggressively, to gain our sympathy for the Americans. It starts with the most cynical and least effective of its sympathy ploys at the very beginning. It plays the phone conversations of the people who died in the Twin Towers at the very start of the film. Later we are shown footage of news coverage of 7/7 and various other terrorist attacks. The film’s makers might have realized though that they could not simply exploit this footage to try and trick people into re-experiencing the trauma. At some point they actually have to make some film and attempt to make some characters for us to feel for and relate to. They knew they had to bring some of the terror to the main American characters in the story. This too is poor just like the attempts to piggyback on existing pain surrounding the attacks failed dismally. (For me anyway.)
So the second strand of the sympathy offensive is bringing it home to the main characters involved. No easy feat when your main characters are involved in the unlawful internment and torture of terrorism suspects. So we must who do we get as our main character. It has to be somebody we can really relate to. Someone who we can see is feeling this. What we get is Jessica Chastain. She plays a cold, seemingly motivationless, historyless redhead. Somebody should have told them not to make her a redhead. Even if the real life woman was redhead you don’t make her a redhead. Redhead in filmland means evil, borderline or both. Redheads have a long history as heartless baddies. So Jessica Chastain’s character then takes to torture like a duck to water and the comparisons are instantaneous for me. She reminds me immediately of Faye Dunaway’s character in Network. Dunaway in that film comes across as a vacuous, almost Borderline, being of pure evil.
In that film she helps to organize the murder of a man who she has made into a star. This is because she can find no other way to end the failing show that she created herself. I think of Gillian Darmody, the mother of Jimmy Darmody, in Boardwalk Empire. She persuades her son to carry on a murderous conspiracy of assorted disaffected politicos, kills a migrant worker, has sex with her son, tries to make her grandson forget her mother, collaborated with a gangster to have the main night club/ entertainment spot blown up leading to many deaths, tyrannically runs a brothel (stamping out any humanity towards her grandson and any humanity that might choose to try and flourish along the way) and various other crimes. So red hair and a cold, impersonal manner not a great start. Even with Boardwalk Empire we get a better character developed. We know Gillian Darmody is the way she is because she was raped when she was younger. We also see it with Faye Dunaway in her desperate attempts to avoid abandonment in the clip above.
Chastain though has none of this in the film she is depicted as a heartless pain in the balls. No boss on earth would tolerate her drawing in marker in window to get attention for her project. Her conversations with Gandolfini’s character deliberately make her a character without a history. The point is markedly made that she has worked on nothing else but Bin Laden.One is left with the impression when she enters the film that she is some sort of alien who never really fits in with the rest of the film’s universe. She refers to herself in the third person as a the ‘motherfucker’.
After a brief interchange of a few meaningless words Chastain’s character rather unconvincingly has a friend.They eat in a hotel. An explosion happens – the audience does not connect the real life disaster with Chastain and her token friend. It feels forced. I continue to not feel for the characters who have not been built compellingly. A scene shows Chastain’s ‘friend’ eating alone. Chastain’s friend refers to family members or relatives and plans. Friend is isolated. Friend eats alone. Friend gets predictably blown up in something the audience saw coming a mile off and she should have scene. Friend feels more like character function for gaining sympathy more so that a character of any depth. Now I tip my hat if the film makers were actually trying really hard hear to make the American characters look like cunts by failing to establish their sympathy tricks properly but I don’t think it would be that meta. The featurette clip above seems to have the filmakers refer to Bin Laden again and again as either ‘the most dangerous man in the world’ or ‘arguably the most dangerous man in the world’. I would go with the latter and would preface it with ‘it could be tenously argued…’ The film’s climax does have some token enemy firing of a an AK47 but for the most part the Bin Laden job involved killing women or unarmed people before reaching Bin Laden who was arguably infirm. Now Bin Laden was a terrorist arsehole but I think the reason we don’t see any footage of the attack or photos is because the job probably involved killing him in his infirm, deteriorating old man mode. Now don’t get me wrong he was evil and deserved punishment but a few hard drives and a dead old man is hardly fucking D-Day.
If you want to watch a better film. Watch Munich. Now they no how to do sympathy. Properly. The killing if the Israeli athletes is split into multiple segments spaced throughout the film that actually show us some of the horror of the events in a way that brings it home to us. We get heavy rumination on bibilical verse and stories. Extended bits on values. We make friends with the enemy and then have to kill them. One of our number is seduced and it could have been Bana’s character and we feel that temptation and we are glad that we resisted it and then we feel guilty because we shoot a naked woman who did it. Then we wonder whether we need to kill certain people and we start to crack up. In Munich we get a sense of ideology and morality and in short context. Characters we can relate in situations that we can see developed and explained. The characters have beliefs, thoughts and feelings. Now look at Zero Dark Thirty. Terrorism is bad. Yes. Established in the mind of everybody. Killing Bin Laden is a priority because… Torture works because….Characters feel ambivalent about torture because….. Chastain wants this because…(apart from token friends sympathy function character that is).
Note the presence of feeling and giving a fuck about characters in the above clip and then compare to Zero Dark Thirty.