Sunday, February 03, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty and the Art of Persuasion

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is a modern-day epic. While films like Lawrence of Arabia, Reds and Braveheart are widely considered to be definitions of epics, Zero Dark Thirty presents a new definition of the epic. It is both historical and immediate. The film depicts both the turn of the 21st century and also events that occurred less than two years ago. Zero Dark Thirty accomplishes the rare combination of being both immediate and retrospective. There is room for contemplation and there is room for evaluation, both critical and complementary.

Running two hours and thirty-seven minutes, the film is every bit the same in stature as the David Lean films we associate with the term “epic” (Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on The River Kwai, etc.) even if it doesn’t focus on sprawling vistas. Just like those David Lean classics, Zero Dark Thirty must be seen at the movie theater. If you miss out on the opportunity to see it on the big screen, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. We tend to think that lush landscapes, huge explosions or infectious laughter are the primary reasons to pay the big money to see a movie at the theater in this day and age. But Zero Dark Thirty reminds of another reason: the escape from distraction. You cannot watch this movie with interruption. The simple pausing of a DVD or glancing at your smartphone irreparably disrupts the immersion and first-class storytelling on display here. Often complex, the film is rarely confusing despite boasting a large cast of characters, diverse locations and leaps in time.

As the movie begins, we feel thirsty for revenge and driven by virtue but by the time we get to the end, we feel some sense of closure but also a degree of uncertainty. The film leaves itself open enough for you to make your own decisions and inject your own thoughts on the issues depicted in the film. But in between, the film is wholly focused on the art of persuasion. Nearly every single scene in Zero Dark Thirty can be boiled down to one character finding a way to persuade another character do what they want. We could suggest this is a fundamental element of our own everyday lives. But life is about negotiation and compromise. Zero Dark Thirty is about getting what you want. Much has been made about the film’s depiction of torture. Without getting too far into the debate, I do not think the film endorses torture but it does contextualize it. The sequence that crystalized everything for me though was the back-to-back scenes involving Jason Clark’s character trying to get a lead from a contact in Kuwait City and Jessica Chastain’s character trying to get Edgar Ramirez’s character to increase surveillance on a target. In one sequence, a Lamborghini persuades, in the other, a Budweiser. It comes down to knowing your audience. Each act of persuasion requires a different approach. Whether you are using fear, compassion, sympathy, camaraderie, or other, Zero Dark Thirty illustrates how hard it is to convince another person to see things your way and the lengths that people will go to get what they need. Notably, the film sidesteps the ultimate act of persuasion in these events, getting President Obama’s sign-off, but that really would have been an unfilmmable scene that would have inherently disrupted the film’s verisimilitude and rhythm. We also get a strong enough sense of the chain of command from the sheer length it takes and also the different personalities in the chain of command.

Zero Dark Thirty is an instant classic. It is a film that must be seen now. In twenty years, it may not seem as relevant. But as should be suggested by a modern-day epic, it helps us to understand the times we live in.