Re:View – ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

The Arts

1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty

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.

4 comments on “Re:View – ‘Zero Dark Thirty’”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    There has been more coming out about “Maya” in the newspapers since the film. The original woman sounds like some driven, driven people I’ve known and not necessarily people I’d like to know: too much like being in the neighborhood of an event horizon. There is now also talk about how central she was to the end result overall, but that always comes when many people are working an issue, as naturally some intel gets picked up – no matter what, and some gets traded back and forth within the confines of an all out contained effort.
    I’m sure in real life that no one outside of a limited few really knew anything about the Seal team members – that goes with the security bubble – so the film is undoubtedly quite real in that; the team is an instrument, human, but not unlike a highly functioning drone. Send them out, bring them back.
    What is amazing is that several members of the team helped create a video game of the raid after and another wrote a book. That is a big No-No. And I’m not sure that has been settled yet, but how does a government settle with individuals in a band of heros?

  2. John Howard says:

    As you say Dan, video game is a bit of a no-no. I suspect that todays generation will not find anything weird about it though. Maybe our attitude is something to do with the worlds we seem to have inhabited at some stage of our lives. All I say is, it must be time to get back to Skyrim and defend a world against some real baddies & dragons.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    John – I’m not against video games, really, and recently read an interesting article called why video gamers shoot. And age may make a difference, since I still like pinball machines.
    But a Seals team member should absolutely not have written a book about the raid, even a member recently out of service, and other members of the team should not have helped, and surely been paid to help, a videogame company develop a game based on the raid.
    They each have taken oaths that training, operational techniques, and individual missions and issues are not to be compromised, even potentially, and each as a USG “employee” are not to profit from their Government service or the knowledge who gained in their service. For Seals this is a strict requirement. But how to deal with heros?
    When I joined the Foreign Service, I took such an oath and was given a security clearance, which might vary up with an .) As a writing person,I also had to present anything I wrote to an Agency review panel and this took lots of time. So, I wrote and boxed stuff, but didn’t draw on anything relating to my work, or related knowledge, until I was well cooled off. Gained knowledge and a career, lost 40 publishing years. This is why I am not best pleased with what has happened after the Raid.
    Two last thoughts {:)} a) U.S. arms makers are apparently working with some video game firms now to place their new products and somehow that sounds wrong since a rapid fire isn’t a beer or coke; and b)the young man who killed all those children and adults in the grade school is reported to have spent all of his time in the family basement playing violent video games for hours upon hours. Did this help deaden him to what he was eventually to do? Did he kill his mother because he was angry with her or because he didn’t want he r to know what he planned to do (remember he also smashed his hard drive)? I suspend judgement until all the returns are in and am sorry for all all the people who died, but dang cap pistols were so much less lethal, even though guns, and I prefer blasting rogue stars to people … and dragons sound good, too. Although, I rather like dragons, but as the French say: “say the V”.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I really appreciate your situation, Dan, and I approve (for what that’s worth) anyone’s honouring of an oath taken. I wish more people understood the reason for those oaths and it’s more than burying ugly actions by government agents. I know it’s a cry in the wilderness but I KNOW that torture is illegal and I keep saying it and saying it and people keep laughing at me as naive. I’d rather be naive than tolerate torture in any form. What truth do you get with it? Hold out a while, just a while, and blurt out a reasonable lie. Stick with that reasonable lie as being all you know and that’s it. (You have to have convinced your mind that it is all you know.) They always said that the Nazis would get whatever knowledge you had out of you, and it’s probably true, but we don’t have to use evil. Alright, you can all laugh now, but I prefer to live in a world of promises and oaths honoured and decency observed. I may have been reading too much Terry Pratchett, of course, particularly “Snuff”.

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