Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant Zero Dark Thirty is an intense, gruelling, nearly objective film experience that details the pursuit and eventual killing of Osama bin Laden. It has been subject to criticism and controversy, as nearly any project of nerve is, but it is as close to a frank rendering as possible.
This is a motion picture about the obsessive pursuit of bin Laden and the lengths Americans went to in order to get their man. It is not pro-torture and it is not partisan. It presents the passage of time and the hardening of hearts; it explores the details dispassionately, never siding with tactics like waterboarding but never ducking their obvious inclusion.
Jessica Chastain is Maya, a Central Intelligence Agency operative focused on the capture of bin Laden. When we first meet her, she is working with a man called Dan (Jason Clarke) as he systematically and ruthlessly tortures a detainee (Reda Kateb) at one of the CIA’s many black sites in Pakistan. This, like many other instances like it, leads to the revelation of a name. That revelation leads to the revelation of another name. And so on.
This is the cold business of intelligence, a process of fishing out names and details that lead to other names and details. Eventually the trail leads Maya to investigate Abu Ahmed for five years. There are bombings and attacks and Maya loses friends. She almost loses her own life. Eventually, the Ahmed trail warms up and leads to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. The rest is history.
Zero Dark Thirty pulls the audience through a complex web of intelligence and tension, tightening the noose and the 157 or so minutes run through the hourglass. Bigelow and cinematographer Greig Fraser utilize the visual stylings of a police procedural, which is only natural, and keep things close to the ground and constantly moving. Much like The Hurt Locker, another Bigelow masterwork, the rapid movements add to the tension.
As much as Zero Dark Thirty paints a success story for American intelligence, it also paints the harshness of the procedures employed. The movie never offers the sense of torture as moral or “approved.” It details the processes chillingly, showing men in dark and dirty rooms doing bad things. At first, Chastain’s Maya balks when she observes waterboarding. Later, she orders a man to be punched in the face. She coarsens over time.
Perhaps the problem is that Bigelow doesn’t tell the audience how to feel. Perhaps the lack of demanding musical score and the absence of hectoring speeches is the problem. Perhaps the blank looks swapped as President Obama appears on television “confirming” that America does not torture aren’t clear enough.
Only the very naïve would assert that these techniques weren’t used by operatives on the hunt for bin Laden, much like only the very naïve would assert that slavery in Tarantino’s Django Unchained couldn’t possibly have been as bad as all that. But does the presence of an aspect of reality indicate moral validation of said reality? Hardly.
On the contrary, Zero Dark Thirty paints the chase of bin Laden as an amoral process. The problem may lie in the fact that Chastain wasn’t Sandra Bullock faltering around a military base in heels with a bunch of white hat Marines getting the job done without crossing any lines, but Bigelow’s responsibility to reality seems to be veiling the moral enjoyment of the movie a little for its more artless viewers.
This is a stunning work of motion picture art, to put it quite plainly. It tracks the operation with clarity and tautness, telling an exhilarating story that disdains the evasion of history as much as it values the production of sincere pressure. Bigelow is proving herself a marvellous filmmaker. It helps that she has a stunning cast to work with and a tale that is more fascinating and gripping than any fiction.