Zero Dark Thirty
The long hunt for Osama bin Laden in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and his eventual coup de grâce would seem an ideal subject for Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal as a follow up to their Oscar-garlanded The Hurt Locker, and indeed this proves exactly the case. Zero Dark Thirty makes the War on Terror feel like a proper war, with the interplay of terrorist attacks, major and minor, and the retaliatory responses rendered as meaningful as any of the great conflicts of history, despite their circumscribed nature – this is war as keyhole surgery. Naturally intelligence is everything, and the tedious and tortuous process of joining the dots in order to form an actionable plan is the central activity, but it comes across as highly gripping nonetheless. Bigelow goes for a down-to-earth procedural authenticity, stripped of any kind of gung ho heroism, and simply observes with a stance that is neutral and non-judgemental but not distanced.
The central character is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent who early in her career witnesses the brutal interrogation of detainee Ammar (Reda Kateb), involving food and sleep deprivation and waterboarding, in a so-called black site in Pakistan. When Ammar is close to breaking point and pleads for her help, she merely says he can help himself by telling the truth. There is no moral questioning here; America is operating under war conditions and everything is a means to an end. Over time Maya proves herself as a worthy operative, holding her own with bossy station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) and forming a strong working friendship with fellow agent Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). Progressively the hunt for bin Laden takes over her life, and as she rides the waves of excitement, frustration, stress and exasperation at her myopic superiors, she becomes Captain Ahab, isolated in her monomaniacal quest.
The sometimes shaky camera, with action taking place against a blurred background, and the teeming colourful chaos of urban Pakistan as a setting, make for a very arresting visual style that recalls The Hurt Locker. Sudden outbreaks of gunplay and other terrorist action are always startling and feel very real – quite unlike the over-extended action of, for example, the Bourne movies. This is Bigelow’s great strength, as exhibited in that previous movie and built upon further here. One could almost say it’s more dramatic reconstruction than drama, but actually it succeeds as drama all the better for its lack of familiar movie-drama spin.
The title ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ refers to half past midnight – the time when bin Laden was finally killed – and for a long-planned movie based on real-life events, that sudden piece of headline news of 2011 changed it out of all recognition. Originally the intention was to cover the unsuccessful hunt for bin Laden in Tora Bora, but then Bigelow and Boal were gifted a climatic ending and so elongated the timeline to get there.
At 157 minutes, it’s a long film and as it moves through many stages, the passage of narrative time becomes palpable. Now president, Obama pops up on TV to say that America doesn’t condone torture, and those ‘bad old days’ when Maya started out now seem part of history. After the chain of intelligence reveals the compound in Abbottobad where bin Laden is – probably – hiding, the action switches to Washington and the bureaucratic struggle to take the next step. Maya introduces herself to CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) as the motherf***er who found the compound, and as before she becomes the driving force to be bold in the face of the pusillanimity of others. Jessica Chastain shows very well Maya’s journey from young ingénue to hard-bitten veteran, and for a film where most of the main characters are spooks without backstory, strong characterisation comes through nonetheless.
The storming of the compound by Navy SEALs is handled with fly-on-the-wall documentary realism and avoids any kind of gimmickry to enhance the sense of action. It is all the more powerful for this, showing just how daring and perilous a mission it was, and covering its various steps at an even pace to give the full measure of its hazards and complications. The mixture of poorly lit nighttime exteriors and interiors intercut with night-vision POV shots, plus the occasional shocking brightness of explosions, really delivers that sense of being there. As with the rest of the film, the handling is cool, objective, not self-congratulatory, the opposite of Ramboesque.
With such controversial subject matter, that treatment is important, and notwithstanding, the film has come in for much criticism for the very thing it takes great pains to avoid – which is a biased or loaded take on the events. Perhaps it is impossible to make a movie that starts with torture and ends with the success of the mission of which that torture was a part without it producing such a reaction; but those issues aside Zero Dark Thirty remains a superb piece of action filmmaking, riveting in its attention to detail, highly persuasive in its realism and further confirmation of Bigelow as a major talent at the top of her game.