You can see why Kathryn Bigelow was attracted to the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden; a tough lone female, plenty of firepower, a woman doing a man’s job – it’s not such a jump from ‘The Hurt Locker’ or indeed ‘Blue Steel’. At a Black Site in the Middle East (or Asia – it’s never specified) a man is repeatedly tortured until he yields the name of bin Laden’s trusted courier. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is told she can watch the waterboarding from a monitor if it’s too much for her, but she elects to stay and actually step up the torture.
Over the next ten years she almost single-handedly pursues her quarry across continents, convinced that she can find bin Laden’s bagman. Each day she writes the amount of time passed in felt-tip on her boss’s office window, and grows more focussed and frustrated. This drive is increased after one of her best friends is blown up in a trap at a supposedly secure compound.
Written by former reporter Mark Boal, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is a non-partisan, non-political narrative with a definitive start and end. Beginning with the audio chatter of the 9/11 attacks and stopping with the death of its chief instigator at the hands of the SEAL Team Six operation, the decade-long story is at its best when showing the attempts to untangle the nightmarish web of leads, dead-ends and traps surrounding the target. At one point the camera tracks through the phone and computer cables in a visual representation of this labyrinthine conundrum.
It feels shot with great verisimilitude, but the final capture is inevitably anti-climactic, and there’s a curious queasiness about showing anything too unpleasant and real. More problematic for many viewers will be the idea that torture is the only way to extract information, and that the entire war was waged by one woman. Bigelow presumably chose to tell this as a hybrid of fact and fiction, and is attracting criticism both from the government who say torture was never condoned, and from those horrified by its implications. However, after a slow and inevitably confusing start the film grips strongly in its second half, with only the lengthy night-vision shootout at its climax failing to leave any impact, simply because there are no characters on the raid that we’ve come to care about in the pre-ordained outcome.
There’s another problem here pertaining to the modern war film. An atrocity perpetrated on thousands of innocent civilians by remote control is avenged by a decade of remote reprisal killings – it doesn’t feel like the stuff of guts-or-glory heroism upon which traditional war films were based. The film must therefore treat the hunt as a laborious office job punctuated by terrorist acts. Chastain plays Maya as a quietly intense, intelligent woman, but we never come to understand anything about her. And while Bigelow is careful not to show too much crowing over the final gunning down of the target, perhaps the subject is still too raw or simply difficult to do justice to. She’s a fine filmmaker, and if she had made Maya less of a cipher perhaps we’d have engaged more.