Zero Dark Thirty


Written by Alex Marx
28 Monday 28th January 2013

The picture opens like a documentary. A black screen announces the date - September 11th 2001 – accompanied by a harrowing audio collage of phone messages and conversations recorded on that day. Throughout the film, specific dates and locations are used as a way of grounding the narrative in historical fact. The film purports to tell us the story as it actually happened, but because it is essentially a fiction film, albeit “based on real events”, this documentary sensibility - the use of title cards, the shaky camera work - can feel a little bit uncomfortable at times.

The story is told predominantly through the impossibly beautiful eyes of Maya, an intelligence analyst, played with aplomb by Jessica Chastain. A lone wolf on a mission; she has no history, no friends or family, no plans for the future beyond the completion of the mission.

In the first scene, Maya, upon arrival at Guantanamo Bay, is visibly upset by the brutality used by her colleague, Dan (Jason Clarke), in interrogating a detainee (Reda Kateb). However, very quickly she becomes immune to what she is watching, even participating in the torture herself. So far, so what? Why the controversy? We all know the CIA used, “enhanced interrogation” techniques, and there are more graphic tortures scenes in Slumdog Millionaire. I suspect the difference lies in the impassive tone with which the torture is rendered; the moral ambiguity of it all.

In an open letter to the LA Times, Bigelow wrote, "Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time."

The debate rages around whether the film condones, criticises, or normalises the practice of torture. Are we supposed to become comfortable with the idea, just as Maya does, because it ultimately leads to the good guys getting their man? Does torture ever actually lead to actionable intelligence and, if so, does the end justify the means? Significantly, it is only later in the film, when Dan and Maya sit across from their prisoner at a table, giving him food and cigarettes, that he offers them a potential lead - the name of a courier, who may, or may not, be close to Bin Laden.

This is where the material starts to feel very familiar, the film turning into an extended episode of Homeland, Season Two. Against the advice of her superiors, Maya faces down suicide bombers and dead ends, until she eventually pieces the puzzle together, leading her, and the CIA, to a high-security compound in Abottabad, Pakistan. The problem with this portion of the film is that Maya, unlike Homeland’s Carrie, is not crazy. And, since she is the lead, and we all know that Bin Laden gets killed in the end, we are never in any doubt as to the correctness of her theories. As such, a film that is, at least in part, a political thriller, has too little tension and no real and present danger.

Arguably, the most important scene in the film is one in which three CIA officers watch a television news report. Onscreen, Barack Obama asserts that, “America doesn’t torture”, as part of an effort to, “regain America’s moral stature in the world.” Maya and her colleagues greet this announcement with a blank silence, a reactional void in which the audience is invited to drop their own authentic response. Bigelow is not telling us what to think, she is merely asking questions of her audience, and I am sure that she is satisfied with the level of reaction and debate that the film has already provoked.

The climactic sequence, the top-secret mission in Pakistan, is incredibly shot, much of it simulating the giddy, green light of night-vision goggles. The direction here is flawless, at once epic and intimate – Bigelow has a certain knack for imbuing action set pieces with a deep humanity. The choice to show the terror inflicted on the Bin Laden children for example, the lingering shot of Bin Laden’s blood soaked floor, certainly opens up the eternal questions relating to the political practice of “an eye for an eye”.

Ultimately, film truth is never the whole truth. As Hitchcock famously said, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out,” and so too is documentary. So, this fictionalised account of real life inside the war on terror, woven in with the historical facts surrounding Bin Laden’s death, lead to a confusing and morally ambivalent conclusion. This may be the intention, but it makes for a strange film that can be read any number of ways, and does not give us the satisfaction of a full dramatic catharsis when Bin Laden’s death finally does come. When the lights came up I left the film feeling numb, and caught myself on my way home idly hoping that the third season of Homeland will be as good as the first.

Zero Dark Thirty is in cinemas now

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