On Seeing the movie Zero Dark Thirty
Last night Rachelle and I watched Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Zero Dark Thirty. A leading Oscar contender, the movie presents a realistic rendering of American Intelligence as it hunts down Osama Bin Laden. It’s achieved near universal critical acclaim, and so it was with some optimism and excitement that I began to watch.
However, soon enough I found myself distracted, focused more on placing the actors in their previous incarnations than whatever was unfolding on the screen.
“Look, there’s the guy from Parks and Recreation!”
“There’s Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights!”
“I think the guy from The Sopranos is wearing a fake nose.”
“Man, that Jessica Chastain looks exactly like a young Julia Roberts!”
I don’t typically do this sort of thing when I’m watching a movie, so I figured that there must be something about Zero Dark Thirty, in particular, that was calling forth such a response. It was simple, I guess, the actors seemed more real to me than the characters that they were playing.
There was nobody in the movie that I liked or was particularly interested in, everybody seeming little more than a collection of suits doing their jobs. This might have been the directorial intent, but it kept me at an emotional and visceral distance, and the entire movie seemed procedural rather than human.
It was hard not to think of the TV show Homeland while watching, and how much of a better, deeper exposition of similar terrain it was than Zero Dark Thirty. I mean, I really, really liked Homeland, and had all sorts of feelings about the characters in the show, rather than about the actors hired to be those characters. Cable TV, with long narrative arcs, has become like reading a novel, while movies, with just 90 minutes or so, (or in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, 157 minutes) has to tell you a kind of hieroglyphic story, one that has to have an immediate commercial punch. And so TV shows, now digested slowly, as seasons rather than episodes, are like novels, and movies are more like an episode of a TV show, bound by all the limits of the prime time formula. It’s ironic, this, but such is life, and it is funny to observe that the consensus best movie of the mainstream this year, pales in comparison to one of the best TV shows of the year.
Sententious films like Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty–arguably made for critics and awards shows– rarely end up serving the audience, whereas films like Pitch Perfect or The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, that are built to serve the audience, are actually much greater critical accomplishments. When the intent is to create something serious for an audience, or the critics that hover above the audience, rather than something authentic or organic within the artist, the results are always distant and insufficient, a suggestion of intent rather than the realization of it, and that artifice will always keep the true audience at bay.