Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow’s follow up to the Oscar winning Hurt Locker continues her exploration of mental anguish suffered by employees of a major US government institution, and inflicted on its enemies.  With Hurt Locker it was about the soldier, in this case it’s the CIA operative.

From red-tape bearucracy and hall-way politics, to torture and terrorism, individuals are plagued by torment throughout the odyssey to bring to justice the criminal mastermind of the worst attack on American soil.

Zero Dark Thirty charts the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden following the attacks on the World Trade Center.  The film opens with a brutal water boarding at a CIA black site that has garnered attention recently by such notable people as John McCain for being misleading in its implication that it helped the CIA get crucial info that ultimately led to Bin Laden’s downfall. The official line these days is that torture did not prove effective, and in fact often gives misleading intel due to the fact that most people being tortured would simply acknowledge whatever their interrogators wanted to hear. (since this review was written, Leon Panetta has since admitted that info via torture helped locate Bin Laden.)

However the film works on so many different levels, that McCain’s claim almost becomes moot.  The film is showing the price some pay because of the collective, and almost unspoken, agreement by us all that torture is acceptable in order to safeguard our societies.  Maybe this particular torture that is depicted in the film didn’t happen, but many have happened, and probably continue to do so, and to innocent as well as guilty suspects.  The film can be viewed through two angles, either it’s promoting its usage to get results, or it’s highlighting a gruesome hypocrisy.  To Bigelow’s credit, the film doesn’t tell you to think one way or the other, there’s ammunition for both sides of the debate.  You could even make the argument that the film is saying torture doesn’t work, because what info we do see being extracted is due to psychological tricky and not physical torture.

Can't torture a flag.  *sigh*

Can’t torture a flag. *sigh*

The anchor of this story is the character of Maya (played by Jessica Chastain), a female analyst whose sole occupation since joining the CIA has been to hunt down Bin Laden, with a near reckless obsession that is so strong that she sweeps everyone into her cause like a vortex, a chaotic hurricane with an inevitable course.  Maya is not lost among the ensemble cast and the many characters whose paths cross over the decade of procedural investigation.  Year after year as the story unfolds we see her make friends and lose some, watch her become near-impervious to witnessing torture, and gain more confidence to the point that she’s almost delivering crowd-pleasing one-liners at her antagonists.

Islam in the narrative is largely represented as The Inscrutable Other.  In its favour, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t an analysis of two beliefs clashing, there’s no attempt at humanising the enemy, or delving into their interpretation of Islam, and at the same time there’s no hackneyed attempt at shoehorning a sympathetic collection of Muslim characters to be politically correct.  The frankness of the film is refreshing, yet it’s still hard to watch a story that is so one-sided, despite its brief portrayals of Islam in a neutral light, even going so far as to show a Muslim CIA higher up actually praying on a prayer mat in his office.  It’s a delicate line, and for some viewers the film walks it fine, for others they may not be so satisfied.

Don't worry bro, I know all the spawn points on this map.

Don’t worry bro, I know all the spawn points on this map.

Bigelow’s direction is taut and unflinching, she’s long had a habit for eschewing conventional cinematic shorthand.  There’s no obvious moments that cheapen the telling of the tale, restraint is exercised when other directors may go too far into bombastic territory.  The infamous raid on Bin Laden’s compound is saved till the end of the film and is incredibly tense, just superb filmmaking overall.

The soundtrack, by Alexandre Desplat, is conventional for the most part with familiar Middle Eastern motifs, but does have some memorable minimalist themes grinding away underneath the surface.

Chastain gives a standout performance as the fiery analyst on a crusade, and is ably supported by Jason Clarke, Mark Strong and Joel Edgerton.

Zerk Dark Thirty is a bold, controversial thriller charting a chaotic decade that changed lives around the world.  I remember it as a time of madness, as if we’d all gone through the looking glass.  Lies were repeated until they were truths, laws were passed with no debate, French fries were nicknamed Freedom fries, people were thrown out of malls for wearing t-shirts saying ‘peace’.

Through that decade a woman stood her ground and continued to do what she was good at, what she knew herself that she was good at, never seeking validation, no matter what obstacles lay in her path, what people said against her, never relying on her gender to navigate her way through a ‘man’s world’, becoming an inspiration to any who want to follow in her footsteps.

Wait, who am I writing about?  Maya or Kathryn Bigelow?  Doesn’t matter, does it?

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