Starring Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Telling the story of the decade long search for Osama Bin Laden following the terror attacks on September 11th 2001, "Zero Dark Thirty" is an interesting film, in many ways. It's interesting on one hand because there was always going to be a significant level of attention paid to what the first female winner of the Best Director Academy Award would choose to make next; Kathryn Bigelow won in 2009 for the Iraq-set bomb disposal drama "The Hurt Locker". It's interesting because although there is obviously a narrative threading through the film, it's told by necessity in a very different manner from most "mainstream" films. And it's interesting because it could potentially serve as a historical document of some sort in years to come, depicting as it does, with the usual disclaimer about the names being changed and certain characters being fictional composites, the quest for the most wanted man on Earth; this was the closing of a significant chapter in contemporary American history. Bigelow, along with her "Hurt Locker" screenwriter Mark Boal, had originally been planning a film about the battle of Tora Bora, the allied offensive of December 2001, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to capture Bin Laden from his suspected hideout in a cave complex within the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan. When news of Bin Laden's death was announced, the script was completely re-written to tell that story. It's an achievement in itself that the film premiered on December 19th 2012, barely 19 months after Seal Team Six's successful mission.
Considering the subject matter it's unsurprising that a certain controversy abounded. The debate mostly centred around the CIA's use of torture, or "enhanced interrogation techniques", to obtain information vital to Bin Laden's eventual location, the film's depiction of it, and the question of whether it justified or even glorified that use. To a lesser extent there was discord that the film opens on September 11th, with a mosaic of audio clips from the day, civil authorities interspersed with recordings of victims' frantic phone calls to loved ones, playing over a black screen. On this point, the objections and accusations that this is needlessly manipulative are understandable, but dramatically and factually it feels necessary in providing a stunning context to the narrative set to unfold. From that brief 9/11 exposure the viewer is thrown immediately into the first of many of said torture sequences. A young, female CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain) observes an interrogation carried out by Dan (Jason Clarke) on a terrorist financier. These scenes are not for the squeamish, and they are curiously rambling and unfocused; but this points to the CIA, despite the bluster, essentially having no viable leads and no idea what they were doing. Maya watches, devoid of emotion, a counterpoint to Dan's (nervous?) constant chattering and air of confidence and superiority. It's an in-the-room-out-of-the-room apparent long game, but comes over as quite desperate. There can be little doubt that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other methods of torture employed by the U.S. in recent years are unethical or barbaric, but the fact that they were used is not the question. What is in question is whether the film's depiction of them implicitly or explicitly condones those methods. Many argue that it does, because the eventual success of the mission relies largely - but not solely, it should be noted - on them. The counter argument, on a moral and political level, says that they were a necessary evil. The "artistic" view is that they are depicted as a matter of fact, without any moral standpoint. Bigelow herself stated that "confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation"; essentially, she's saying, don't shoot the messenger. Unless one brings a political agenda to viewing, this has to be the approach to take.
Maya, based, by some accounts, on a real agent, named as "Jen" in the book "No Easy Day" by Mark Bissonette aka Mark Owen, is the closest the film comes to offering an emotional touchstone for the audience; but even then it's a struggle, because she's an emotional blank page. She calmly takes in the happenings around her and sets about her task with ice-cold abandon. It's only much later - years later, in the timeframe of the film - that she starts to show stress, frustration, exhaustion and anger. So to that effect it strengthens the claim that the film doesn't endorse torture, it just shows it happening. Having the characters treat the whole process so matter-of-factly backs this up; they don't stop to debate the morality of their actions, the makers leave it to the viewer to take away and consider. There is even a case to be made that the film hints at the pointlessness of the whole process, or at least the need to employ other methods of information gathering, as a key clue is discovered as having been on file all along, but on the back burner. Potentially the case could have advanced without the need for "enhanced interrogations".
Wisely, the story is broken into chapters, marked by title cards. This is no Tarantino-esque indulgence, however, it's a skillful way of marking the distinct phases of the ongoing quest. Starting with "The Saudi Group", and progressing through "Abu Ahmed" (bin Laden's courier), "The Meeting", and "The Canaries", the latter referring to the SEALs who will carry out the raid. The film also uses place and time-line captions, marking out the passing of time and location with forensic detail, creating a documentary-like air of realism. Such a sense is heightened further by the predominance of hand-held camerawork, not in a distracting "shaky cam" manner, but just enough to imbue in the viewer a vaguely unsettling sense of being a hidden observer.
Aside from the torture, moments of physical violence are few and far between, and come mostly, shockingly out of the blue; only the London bombings of July 2005 are given any obvious visual signpost in the moments before the explosion, although another scene depicting a suicide bomb attack is agonizingly, grimly foreseeable. These moments are all the more unnerving because, for the most part, the narrative depicts very slow progress in the investigation. That's not to say it's hard to follow, but it does feel slightly bogged down, particularly in the middle section. However, this is offset to spectacular effect by the final segment, in which the compound in Abbottabad is identified, argued over, and eventually attacked. Mercifully, the build up to the mission is largely glossed over. When the go-ahead is given, there's an exchange between Maya and the SEALs; Justin (Chris Pratt) and team leader Patrick (Joel Edgerton) express their skepticism as to whether it really is bin Laden they'll be going after, as they've chased ghosts before, and lost friends and colleagues on similar mission. Maya bluntly says she'd have preferred to drop a bomb on the compound, but has to send this group of soldiers in as "canaries", to find and kill bin Laden for her, and has stated that she is "100% certain" it's him.
The raid sequence, when it comes, is nothing short of breathtaking. Some of it is hard to make out, shown in almost total darkness, some sections are shown in the bright green images seen through night vision goggles. Only a few of the SEALs have been given any degree of characterization by this point, so the viewer isn't particularly given an anchor from which to experience the action, rather a number of men sweeping through the buildings with swift efficiency. It's disorientating, chaotic, and frenetic. The only real criticism seems to be that the troops talk too much, and that no-one called out Osama's name, but surely this can be forgiven for the sake of dramatic license; total silence and hand signal communication only may have been more authentic, but would have made the events much harder to follow. Despite the outcome being foregone knowledge, there's a sense of danger - as when a crowd of locals gathers, advancing on the compound - and an increasing apprehension as room after room is cleared with no sign of the ultimate target. And when, at last, the kill shot is taken, it's almost an anticlimax. The body is photographed so it can be identified, but the dead man's face remains tantalizingly unseen. There's no valve to release the tension, as the unit has limited time to gather as many files and as much information as they can in the few minutes before they have to evacuate.
And then it's all over. Back at base, Maya nervously makes the ID, and seems to go into a state of shock. Later, she boards a transport plane, and sits, numb, as the crewman calls out to her; "You must be pretty important, you've got the whole plane to yourself", and asks "Where do you want to go?". Maya starts to cry. There are no flag-waving triumphalist scenes of patriotic Americans wildly celebrating the death of their greatest foe. Nothing. The film has shown her obsession, and presented a wide range of supporting characters along the way (including Mark Strong as a CIA superior, the Kyle Chandler as the Station Chief in Pakistan, James Gandolfini as the CIA Director, and - bizarrely - John Barrowman, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo), but none of them are there at the end. Indeed, none of them, with the partial exception of Dan, are indulged with anything approaching backstory or character-arc; they are purely functional. Having progressed through the film becoming gradually more animated - frustrated, angry, determined - Maya is suddenly deflated, and blank again. Is she shocked that her actions have landed a dead man in front of her (Bisonnette writes "people at (her) level never had to deal with the blood")? Is she grieving for the sudden hole in her life and purpose, or something more?
One can choose to focus on the negative aspects of what occurred during the period addressed, and indeed many commentators were positively outraged by what they took from the movie, whether conservatives complaining that President Obama is presented in an overly favourable light (he's not) or liberals decrying its glamourization of torture (which isn't there). Ultimately, it's unlikely that this film, or any other, will decisively sway anyone or settle the argument on such a divisive topic. To focus on this element is to overlook that "Zero Dark Thirty" is a rare achievement. Politics should be left at the door, if at all possible. Technically brilliant, it is by turns, compelling, absorbing, vaguely depressing, thrilling, slightly overwhelming, but never less than thought-provoking. It's a cold, essentially heartless film, about a grim, unpleasant matter from start to finish. As such, it's a film which has a great deal in and about it to admire and appreciate, but one which is very difficult actually to like. But then, that's the point.
A last word: "Violence is taboo. Not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information." - Colonel Robin 'Tin Eye' Stephens, Commandant of Camp 020, British Interrogation Centre, Latchmere House, World War 2.