Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
When I first heard of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden back in early May 2011 I had a conflicting response. On the one hand as a Guardian reading lefty I was disgusted at America’s arrogance and utter disregard for legal covenants by deploying a kill team in a sovereign state to execute a foreign national, not even pretending to pay lip service to international law, trampling on the enshrined rights of less powerful countries as they stride the global stage with a disgusting, impervious and arrogant glee. On the other hand I do operate in the real world despite the volume of movies I watch, and I didn’t weep a solitary tear at the removal of one of the most loathsome mass murdering fuckers to blight humanity in a generation, spewing his poisonous misogynist, medieval and incomprehensible bile, and was fully contingent of the potential propaganda coup that an international trial could have provided to his deluded and perverted cause. A similar dysfunction seems to have afflicted the cultural and critical community when it comes to Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s re-team with her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal, deftly assaulting the story of the largest manhunt in modern history which culminates with the final maneuvers on the Abbotadad compound, an operation which some hoped could apply a soothing vengeance laced balm to the atrocity of 9/11 a decade since the twin towers fell and the Pentagon smouldered.
The film opens with a throttling grip – a blank screen, gradually filling the auditorium with a cacophony of distressing voicemails from the poor doomed souls trapped in the burning towers – before parachuting us into to a secretive rendition site where a dazzled and discombobulated intelligence asset is being beaten and waterboarded by a senior CIA operative (Jason Clark) as recent recruit Maya (Jessica Chastain, porcelain and brittle) looks on in queasy horror. The bruised asset has links to the most wanted man on the planet, the terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden whose evasion of justice is a weeping sore in the American body politic, Maya obsessively spearheading the furtive quest to uncover his clandestine nest over years of false starts and covert cul-de sacs, as further atrocities are visited upon London, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Madrid. As successive administrations are established in Washington Maya’s executive masters displace her resources as the priorities morph into homeland reared threats, but her contumacious passion remains undiminished, and an overlooked figure might just prove to be the breakthrough she has been praying for to finally avenge that epoch inducing September morning….
It has taken a dozen years but we finally have the crucial dossier on the defining international event of the past decade, thankfully this provocative and gaunt film is several leagues removed from the jingoistic nausea that the material could have enlisted in less professional hands. Zero Dark Thirty is a cold and dispassionate look at a decade of vengeance seeking diminution of the moral high-ground, forged in a reportage flavoured, hand-held dissection of the very dirty, loquaciously lethal business of surreptitious modern warfare. Maya’s alteration over this lengthy globe-trotting quest is anchored with a brilliant performance from Chastain, driven by an unexplained fury at the jihad, quite refreshingly there is no Hollywood back story of a slain lover or family member to ignite her unswerving devotion to the cause, she only letting a sliver of her psychological passion become illuminated in one electrifying exchange. The supporting players are uniformly excellent as a squadron of intelligence operatives and their auxiliaries, with particularly memorable turns from a scene stealing Mark Strong in a powerful sequence that recalls Alec Baldwin’s brutal pitch in Glengarry Glen Ross, and Jason Clark’s resigned confederate to the cause, musing over the neccesity to distance himself from his activites lest he loses his own disintegrating humanity. Like Bigelow’s best work the film has a pummeling momentum which careens through a decade of atrocities and covert failures, it’s a very bleak and unrelenting tour of our subversive recent history which entreats a funeral march rather than an inspiring militaristic trumpet blare, with few concessions to an audiences potential bewilderment at the rapid fire parade of names and leads, the film’s title referring to an establishment argot that simultaneously references the period of the final assault and the wider nebulous world of insidious espionage.
After two hours of procedural excellence the final assault on the compound unwinds in a tension shredding, heart in mouth bravura final thirty minute sequence which operates without the assistance of Alexandre Desplat’s brooding score, where most American fodder would shift to rapidly edited heroics the film’s climax is presented in a real-time allotted adamant and surgical fashion, there is nothing heroic in pouring high velocity silenced rounds into bewildered enemies or screaming women, it’s a tough watch and the filmmakers should be applauded for retaining their integrity to the non-fictional horrific facts of the operation. Bigelow exchanges a cool contact with her usual fascinations, embedding a female protagonist in an overwhelming male environment, but as you’d expect from a filmmaker of her calibre these elements are not overtly expressed but more obliquely suggested in Maya’s obliteration of obstacles throughout her professional prowess. She is quite obviously a cipher for the American experience in the months and years following 9/11, initially disgusted and visibly distressed at the moral quagmire circulating the use of torture and so-called enhanced interrogation techniques in order to realise a greater good, her innocence and virtuous standing crushed by the moral cost of a dispassionate and relentless pursuit of retribution.
The controversy around the films supposed promotion of torture is an absolute joke, with commentators and pundits using the film to further their careers and media visibility in a quite disgusting fashion, not to mention how utterly inaccurate these accusations are in the context of the films narrative as the intelligence yielded under such circumstances is false and redundant in the wider goal of defeating the serpentine al-Qaeda opponent. It is as Bigelow and Boal assert a journalistic account of the hunt with first hand confessions of the principals in the conflict, and there seems to be some strange myth out there that a filmmaker or indeed any creator of stories is complicit in any odious behaviour merely by presenting it as fact. Judged on those unstable grounds are we demanding that Spielberg be arrested for his anti-Semitism in Schindler’s List? I’ve even read accounts of Bigelow accused as a 21st century Riefenstahl – for the uninitiated she was the female filmmaker who served as the Third Reich’s principal propaganda agent – and this is some of the worst submerged misogyny I’ve heard for quite some time, isn’t it strange how the producers behind the torture vindicating 24 or deeply racist Homeland don’t seem to have attracted the same flack, but then again they’re not women are they? The film isn’t remotely jingoistic or flag waving even during its final hollow triumph, the film culminating in an extraordinary crowning image, a remorse streaked Pyrrhic victory which heals no wounds, a staggering finale which evokes Dreyer’s Joan Of Arc by circling the film in a loop which connects to the opening mausoleum prayers. Impeccably researched and brilliantly executed, Zero Dark Thirty is the definitive 9/11 movie thus far, a Orwellian census on the Dantesque cost of perpetual warfare;