Review – Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton, James Gandolfini

Zero Dark Thirty“We got him.” Those were apparently the words President Obama uttered as confirmation came through that Osama bin Laden had been killed at 12:30am (‘zero dark thirty’ in military speak) on the 2nd May 2011 as part of a successful raid on a fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Less than two years later, Academy Awards winning director Kathryn Bigelow has brought the story of that mission to the big screen. She was able to turn the movie around so quickly because it was already in development at the time bin Laden was killed, though significant rewrites were required as it was originally intended to be about the unsuccessful decade-long manhunt.

Maya is a young CIA analyst assigned to the operation to find bin Laden. When interrogation of a prisoner (more on that later) reveals the name Abu Ahmed a-Kuwaiti, supposedly a personal courier for bin Laden who everyone has heard of but no one can identify, Maya becomes fixated on the idea that finding him will lead them to bin Laden. But not only is Maya a woman in a man’s world, she is a young woman in an older man’s world, and as the search continues over a number of years, she consistently finds herself butting heads with male superiors whose Cold War era understanding of intelligence  makes them difficult to convince.

Zero Dark Thirty is effectively a historical drama in the style of a thriller, set in the very, very recent past. This makes it a bit strange on two fronts. As a thriller, the fact that you already know the resolution creates an unusual dynamic, and as a historical drama, it feels odd watching a recreation of events which still feel like part of the present. The strangeness struck me in a moment when President Obama appeared on a television screen in the background of a shot. I’m used to seeing much older Presidents on television screens in movies; JFK, Nixon or Reagan, not the guy that I see on the news every night. Historical dramas usually require a bit of distance from the events they are trying to depict in order to gain some sort of objective perspective. For example, despite his impressive track record of historical dramas, Oliver Stone’s biopic W. was terrible, and one of the primary reasons for its shoddiness appeared to be that it was too biased and politicised a film. Released in late 2008, in the final months of Bush’s second term as president, the film had an obvious agenda leading into the election, which coloured its portrayal of characters and events. It is for this reason, among many others, that Bigelow’s film is a great achievement. Zero Dark Thirty manages to depict very recent events which are still hot-button topics with a sort of neutrality, without being preachy or didactic in any way.

It is this currentness of events that has landed the picture in a bit of controversy. One of the hottest political issues to come out of the hunt for bin Laden at the time was the role of torture and humiliation tactics in CIA intelligence gathering. The first third of Zero Dark Thirty contains some quite graphic and very confronting scenes of CIA interrogators using the torturing of prisoners as a means of getting them to divulge information. These depictions have prompted some commentators to accuse the film of endorsing the controversial practice. Others have come to the defence of the film, including Michael Moore who wrote this article for the Huffington Post.

Watching the film myself, I never felt that I was watching a pro-torture film. The film doesn’t shirk away from showing the central role torture played in early intelligence gathering, but when you think about it there was no other option. Could you imagine the equivalent shit-storm that would be surrounding the film if Bigelow had somehow tried to undersell the role of torture or even write it out of the history completely? It was such an ugly and public controversy that it had to feature prominently in the retelling of the story. However, as Bigelow herself has argued, depiction is not the same as endorsement. I would add to her point that a film containing characters, even protagonists, who endorse the practice of torture is not the same thing as the film itself endorsing the practice.

The scenes of torture, particularly the waterboarding, are very difficult to watch. And therein lies the key. They are difficult to watch because of where our empathy lies. As Moore alluded to in his argument, at no point do we find ourselves empathising with the interrogator, hoping that he can break the prisoner and make them talk. In these scenes we always find ourselves emotionally aligning ourselves with the tortured prisoner, even when we are told of their supposed role in the 9/11 attacks. That we find ourselves compelled to side with the ‘enemy’ in the scene suggests that the film is anti-torture.

After her critical success with The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s direction of Zero Dark Thirty cements her as the world’s premier director of films about modern warfare, a very different beast to the style of combat which has for so long been the staple of the war movie genre. The final raid on bin Laden’s compound is masterfully staged with a gritty realism. The methodical way the soldiers go about performing their task is very interesting and makes for a really engaging scene, even if it is not the big, high-octane payoff that a thriller usually ends with. The tension is impressive given the potential for the film’s third act to be a massive anti-climax with everyone knowing exactly what happens. Bigelow’s failure to be recognised with an Oscar nomination in the Best Director category was one of the bigger surprises of this year’s nominations.

Jessica Chastain as Maya

Jessica Chastain as Maya

With Bigelow’s profile as a director meaning she is forced, whether she wants to or not, to wave the flag for women in film, it is also pleasing to see her direct a film with a female protagonist. Jessica Chastain delivers a very strong performance as Maya and is one of the favourites in the Best Picture category at this year’s Oscars. Over the last couple of years Chastain has emerged as a talented and versatile performer. She was delightful in The Help as the hopeless housewife and social outcast, Celia Foote, and also caught people’s attention as Brad Pitt’s wife in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. As Zero Dark Thirty’s determined heroine, Maya, Chastain shows us something different again. Her roles in The Help and Tree of Life were both very emotionally open characters, here she plays her cards much closer to her chest. She is very closed off and methodical, living for the job.

Zero Dark Thirty is different to any thriller or war movie you have seen –our protagonist isn’t an action hero, she’s a desk jockey – but it is no less thrilling. It is a masterfully orchestrated film that takes you inside the intellectual process of finding the most wanted man in the world.

Rating – ★★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

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  1. Pingback: The Doctor of Movies’ Top 10 of 2013 | Doctor of Movies

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