When Kathryn Bigelow underdogged the oscar from Avatar, a sigh of relief audible from space was omitted by cinephiles everywhere. In retrospect, The Hurt Locker turned out to be an interesting, well made film, looking at war from an unusual, positive angle that, on repeat viewings, turned out to have about a teaspoonful of narrative amidst it’s machismo. Now, with Zero Dark Thirty, a tale that begins with the horrific events of 9/11 and ends with the horrific events in a compound on the Iran/Afghanistan border, Bigelow has, if anything, a massive surplus of narrative, a whole truckload of twelve years of muddled, secretive counter intelligence, wars and further terrorist action to refine into a cohesive film that we should probably be grateful only lasts two and three quarter hours.
Scripted by Mark Boal, also responsible for The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty draws an uncomfortably straight line that leads the CIA directly from 9/11 to “justifiable” torture to the public transport bombings in London to The Marriot bombing in Islamabad to the discovery of Bin Laden’s whereabouts. Simplifying a globally fraught and politically nightmarish 12 years might have been narratively necessary but feels obliquely disingenuous to an audience, all of whom will bring their own personal viewpoints and experiences to bear. One wonders how this film is playing in Iran or Afghanistan or China. We should stress that no money, equipment or assistance from the US Military was requested, which is admirable, and the film tries so very, very hard to walk the molecule thin line between right and wrong. However, when it falls off it is invariably onto the gung-ho American side.
This film is expertly made. Shot beautifully by Greig Fraser in very suitable, faux documentary style, structured well by an elegant script, scored by music that builds gradually and remains perfectly backgrounded throughout. Performed professionally by actors with skill and absolutely no showboating and all held together with the tightest direction of Bigelow’s career. Zero Dark Thirty is gripping, slick and paced perfectly. It’s hard to imagine anyone making a better film on this subject (United 93 remains the best reflection of 9/11 film making fallout), it just trips over it’s own tangled shoelaces.
The torture scenes are dispassionate, functionary and unbearable. As they should be. Dan (Jason Clarke) portrays the CIA interrogator featured most prominently. He’s jaded, viewing it as just a job and barely seeing humanity anymore. He pointedly shows his pet monkeys more compassion than the human being he has just shoved into a tiny box. He initiates Maya (Jessica Chastain deserves the Oscar) into his world, where she initially balks, but then becomes complicit within. A scene where we are asked to feel sorry for Maya and her terrible, necessary duties and the weight it leaves on her shoulders is far too rich and absolutely the film’s low point. When the crucial piece of information that leads to Bin Laden’s discovery is revealed to have been in the CIA’s possession for years, rendering the, now shut down, rendition programs seemingly meaningless, Zero Dark Thirty claws back a lot of respectability. As does a scene where a CIA operative incredulously asks how they are supposed to obtain information without recourse to torture now Obama is in office.
As soon as Bin Laden’s compound is identified, the film could logically end. In All The President’s Men, as soon as the link between the burglars and President Nixon is discovered, the credit’s roll as the rest of the story, Nixon’s impeachment, was so widely covered already. The grey, high walled building occupied by Bin Laden and several other families was so ubiquitous on the rolling news channels that it leaves the (worryingly Call Of Duty like) denouement, although brilliantly staged and shot, feeling somewhat pornographic as we wait and guess and jump and expect the next frame to contain the death of the world’s most wanted man. Bin Laden’s death in May 2011 means this film has been turned around in eighteen months and some of the joy masquerading as relief that was visible (from an outsider looking into America) seems to have seeped into this admirable attempt to remain dispassionate about a necessary, unpleasant, almost entirely justifiable chapter in America’s history. Perhaps as more distance is achieved more perspective will arrive. However, as of now, Zero Dark Thirty remains an uneasy proposition, marred by ethical dilemmas that were never really dilemmas in the first place.