Zero Dark Thirty tells the ten year tale of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow it is a morally complex, ambiguous film that is both thrilling and intellectually stimulating.
It is a thoroughly engaging, if not a little hard to call entertaining, real life thriller. As an example of a film about the fight back against terror, it pales in comparison to United 93 in terms of raw emotional power but its realism and careful construction come close to that film’s documentary style. In the final sequence at bin Laden’s secret hideout, it is hard to believe at some points that it was not filmed at the exact location of the true events, so meticulous is the reconstruction. The thriller and the procedural elements are wholly gripping and powered by horrendous torture scenes, references to real life tragedies and a climax that is edge of the seat exciting and simultaneously depressing.
It is the politics however that make Zero Dark Thirty the most difficult to watch and comment on. It shows torture in all its disgusting glory from water boarding to treating detainees like dogs to sleep deprivation and humiliation. It positions scenes of torture immediately after the real life voices of the innocent victims of 9/11 fill your ears with cries for help giving context to why America would feel the need to commit such inhumane acts. It only shows the torture of detainees who are clearly guilty of some involvement in terrorism. It seems to almost implicitly suggest that more torture could have prevented later tragedies in 7/7 and elsewhere and it makes a CIA operative who commits the worst, most degrading and reprehensible acts of torture to be a reasonable, kind of nice guy who has to get out of the job because of what it is doing to his mental health. Torture it seems is a tough job but the film seems to say someone has to do it. When Obama comes on the television saying he plans to scrap torture, it puts a right spanner in the works of the characters we have come to care about.
But the film does not celebrate torture. It does not glorify it. And it even sort of suggests that torture failed and that instead good detective work solved the case of where in the world bin Laden was hiding. It suggests the impact torture has on the people who commit it but fails to say much about the devastation it causes detainees and certainly not the ‘perhaps hundreds whom the U.S. has wrongfully imprisoned in Afghanistan, Cuba and elsewhere on the basis of flimsy or fabricated evidence, old personal scores or bounty payments’. It’s a streamlined Hollywood narrative film so perhaps there is no time for such issues but as it is, the film seems to suggest torture had its merits, might have been necessary and perhaps even should still be allowed. This strict sticking to narrative conventions also explains why there is no context to the 9/11 attacks, no sense of the CIA’s past sins or the reason for jihadist’s hatred of America; not that that would excuse the attacks, just as the attacks don’t excuse the murder of Afghan and Iraqi civilians. And on the subject of inexcusable, so is the using of 9/11 victims phone calls without the families’ permission.
But beneath the politics is a solid film, well acted, incredibly sombre in the face of what should have been a great victory and subtly feminist. Jessica Chastain is fantastic as Maya, supposedly a composite of many CIA officers (mostly women) who were deeply and determinedly involved in the hunt for the world’s most wanted man. The score resembles the anticipation inducing dull thudding of United 93, a film that similarly created a pain staking reconstruction of real events.
One of the most interesting points of the film is where it makes your sympathies lie. You can’t help but sympathise for the torture victim despite his involvement with 9/11. You want Maya to succeed in her quest but then the final fire fight makes you sympathise with the people closest to bin Laden as they wail and weep. It’s a tricky, morally complex mess, just like the real situation.
Zero Dark Thirty certainly does not shy away from the controversy surrounding the ‘war on terror’ and should be commended for that. Simply as a film, it stands tall amongst real life thrillers. Its politics might me morally dubious but they are complex enough to provoke serious and stimulating debate and for that I highly recommend it.