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Zero Dark Thirty - movie review

For a “just-the-facts” procedural about a series of events almost no-one is disputing, Zero Dark Thirty sure does raise a lot of questions.

After the attacks on 9/11 there was a decade-long search for Osama Bin Laden; torture was used as part of that search; the search ended in a Navy SEAL mission to kill Bin Laden; that mission was successful. Working within those parameters and using classified information gained from sources close enough to the Bin Laden search that a US government enquiry into leaked information has been announced, director Katherine Bigalow has created a tightly wound film that feels more like a mirror: whatever opinions you bring into it, it’ll reflect them right back.

After opening on a black screen while we hear actual distress calls from inside the World Trade Centre during 9/11, we meet Maya (Jessica Chastain) outside a shed in a desert. The year is 2003; inside the shed, fellow CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke) is torturing someone. For a while she watches. Then she joins in. She’s our lead character, the once consistent face in a story where a name-heavy cast (Mark Strong, James Gandolfini, Mark Duplass, John Barrowman) pop up then vanish. So… this is a film that supports torture then?

Not exactly. If Zero Dark Thirty really was Hollywood’s idea of a pro-torture film, it would feature a scene directly linking torture to the successful attack on Bin Laden. The CIA would torture someone who would give up Bin Laden’s home address and they’d go off and kill him. In every other pro-torture film, that’s how torture works: you find a guy and torture him until he tells you want you need to know.

But in Zero Dark Thirty, we are presented with a mess. People are tortured for extended periods and give up nothing. Others give up information after being tortured and we don’t know if it was the torture or the kindness shown afterwards that broke them. Vital information turns up after being misfiled for years. In one scene someone talks merely because the threat of torture is there; would they have talked if torture was off the table?

Thankfully this isn’t a film that needs a left-wing journalist character standing around quietly saying things like “you know torture creates even more terrorists, right?” to get across the anti-torture side of the story. Even if you personally find the gruelling scenes of torture morally justifiable, it’s no coincidence that all such scenes take place in the first half of the film while all the actual progress in tracking down Bin Laden is made in the second half. And that progress is made using more tolerable methods of information-gathering: bribes and tracing phone numbers and sending people out to take a look at what’s actually going on.

With its dry, procedural approach to the facts—the eight year long story is broken down into distinct chapters, and while the steady beat of Al Qaeda’s various terrorist attacks across the globe keeps the sense of urgency up—this is still a film featuring a lot of boardroom meetings. It’s tempting to treat Zero Dark Thirty as a break from Bigalow’s earlier, more fantastic films like the vampire thriller Near Dark or the science fiction noir Strange Days. Even her previous Iraq War film The Hurt Locker was an action-packed character study; here the other characters appear in snippets and Maya has no past, no inner life beyond the hunt.

But Bigalow’s always been interested in violent families with rigid codes (the vampires in Near Dark, the bank robbing surfer gang in Point Break) and how an individual operates within them. She makes films about groups that have to work together to survive extreme pressures, then focuses on the person within that group who wants to go their own way.

No surprise then that when the urgency in the hunt for Bin Laden dies down inside the CIA—even Dan takes a Washington job because he can’t take what he’s done, and when he re-appears later it’s a stark reminder that Maya’s obsession isn’t helping her professionally one bit—it’s Maya who keeps pushing, keeps hammering away at her superiors, keeps steering things down the path she’s chosen.

It’s hardly a path that elevates her; like a film noir detective, the horrors she uncovers (and commits) seem to eat away at all that’s human inside of her, leaving her an abrasive unsympathetic machine with a laser-like focus on her target. She has no friends or private life, she may have had schemed to have her boss fired for getting in her way, and when she meets the Navy SEAL squad that will be sent in to get Bin Laden, she snarls that she’d rather they just dropped a bomb on his compound and civilian casualties be damned.

After two hours of finely-tuned and consistently enthralling spy drama, the final half hour is a gritty night-vision re-enactment of the strike on Bin Laden’s hideout (with Joel Edgerton as one of the lead SEALs). Despite the known outcome it’s still compelling, masterful film-making, distilling the film’s procedural approach down to individual moments: you blow open this door, let that guy go ahead, climb this flight of stairs, and eventually someone pulls a trigger and Bin Laden is dead.

There’s no triumph in this final killing, no flag-waving sense of accomplishment in this note-perfect film. After what’s been close to a masterpiece of suspense film-making, Bigalow gives us the only ending she could have. A soul-destroying quest that went on too long and cost too many lives is over. Even sitting in an air-conditioned cinema it’s hard not to feel a little dirty, a little shattered at the end of it all.

Anthony Morris

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