News travels fast and the arts, arguably, just as fast. It seems that little time passes between major news, political and cultural events occurring and their portrayal in mainstream media. At time of writing a Julian Assange movie is well into production and Bradley Cooper has just been cast as disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. Barely eighteen months have passed since the death of Osama Bin Laden and now Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller about the hunt for the Al-Qaeda leader arrives on these shores amidst both critical adulation and a storm of controversy. Bigelow was already well into production on a project about the failed hunt for Bin Laden when real world events forced a rapid change of focus for the film. Hopes were high following her historic Oscar win for Iraq war thriller The Hurt Locker. Can her return to familiar theatre hold up to scrutiny?
Following the September 11 attacks, newly recruited CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) is deployed to Pakistan where she joins a covert team dedicated to seeking out Osama Bin Laden’s couriers in the hope it will lead to his location. The narrative then follows Maya and her colleagues across a grueling decade of dead ends, shifting political landscapes, assassination attempts and haunted obsession before arriving at the inevitable outcome of May 2nd 2011.
Bigelow is a master of crafting a tough, machismo drenched world through her camera lens. Her past work has traded in different genres and protagonists from different walks of life. Her aesthetic here is similar to that of The Hurt Locker; lots of handheld camerawork, extended close ups and disoriented framing have a powerful culmanitive effect. What’s fascinating this time round is how much of the drama she chooses to show through screens within the frame. The protagonists of Zero Dark Thirty are shown poring over lengthy intelligence data, hours of interrogation footage, news reports of major terrorist attacks and the frighteningly familiar overhead sights of CIA drones. A good chunk of the final raid is viewed through the first person viewpoint of the SEAL’s night vision goggles. Where The Hurt Locker and films before it portrayed a war fought on the ground side by side with the ‘grunts’, Zero Dark Thirty portrays a unique 21st century attitude towards combat. This is a war fought through intelligence, data and statistics. It is a cold and stark view that matches our 24 hour media mainlined view of contemporary warfare. That’s not to say that the film branches out in all directions; political figureheads are glimpsed briefly and major events (Invasion of Iraq, Obama’s election) are alluded to but never directly mentioned. There’s a cool and clinical air of detachment over the proceedings.
Without a backstory or even a surname, the central character of Maya is presented to us as a decidedly single minded individual with little to no life outside her hunt for Bin Laden. A child’s hand drawing reading ‘Mommy’ is glimpsed but never brought up and she shoots down all questions about her private life from colleagues. Such a portrayal could be viewed as unengaging but a fierce performance from Chastain makes it anything but. Pale, ethereal and with a thousand yard stare Chastain dominates every scene she’s in, her evolution from rookie to veteran wholly believable. While there is a whole other ideology hanging over the films head, it is also possible to see one aspect that attracted Bigelow to this specific take on the story. Maya is one of few female characters in the film operating in what is seen as a predominantly male environment (read:Hollywood) and she spends just as much time butting heads with her colleagues than she does hunting her prey. ‘I’m the motherfucker who found him’ she cooly intones to a room full of indecisive superiors in what is probably the closest the film comes to a ‘victory’ moment. In many ways Maya’s journey reminded me of David Fincher’s superb Zodiac, another exhaustive, fictionalized account of the hunt for one individual and the havoc it wreaks on those who search for him.
Anyone heading into see Zero Dark Thirty will be no doubt aware of the controversy surrounding its alleged depiction of torture of detainees and the suggestion that such methods worked and led to Bin Laden. American senators have written letters to the production company criticising such a depiction whilst author Naomi Wolf wrote a scathing article comparing Bigelow to Nazi propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Certainly Bigelow and script writer Mark Boal do not shy away from the fact that ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ occurred at American forces hands and the opening scenes showing a detainee being stripped, humiliated and waterboarded are horrifying to watch. However the film portrays the brutalisation of detainees yielding no or useless information. It is when the characters re-examine existing evidence that they eventually wind up on the road to Bin Laden’s compound. I personally don’t agree that the film condones torture and prefer such a brutal stark portrayal to that of the likes of 24 where Jack Bauer’s relentless torture of characters become both repetitive and repellent. I certainly won’t pretend to be smarter than anyone making the allegations; I would point out Alex Gibney’s article on the film which though I disagree with it he argues his points very well. However I would point out the argument of torture being effective (and in turn accusations of condoning American violence) is largely undone by the cold, blunt delivery of the films finale. Bin Laden is finally killed practically offscreen in front of screaming women and children with no triumphant ‘got him!’ moment. The first thing the SEAL’s do when the deed is done? Take pictures with a camera to confirm the kill. More distancing through a digital screen.
There’s no ‘ra-ra’ patriot message to end on. The narrative ends hours before Bin Laden’s death is made public. No footage of celebrations in Times Square, rather Bigelow chooses to end on an image that suggests that the decade long mission has brought nothing but a Pyrrhic victory. Maya’s quarry finally caught, her life is practically over. Many may feel differently and either way it is no easy watch. But Bigelow has created a never less than compelling , astonishingly well made thriller which dodges the cliches it could have fallen into and shines a light where similar films have rarely gone. However you feel about that is completely up to you.