Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the hunt for, and execution of, America’s deadliest foe – Osama bin Laden. There has been much controversy surrounding the release of Zero Dark Thirty. This is one of those films which are inextricably linked to their moment in time, and the strength of feeling surrounding the issues involved was bound to generate some kind of media frenzy. Kathryn Bigelow has herself termed the film ‘journalistic’ in style and substance and it has been this assertion that has hyped the media balloon.
There is, in a sense, a kind of journalistic documentary-style integrity to what she has produced (given the known lack of integrity in journalism, despite the stated aims). But it is, ultimately, a movie. The plot centres around Maya (Jessica Chastain, Lawless), a young CIA field agent charged with finding the elusive binLaden. The synergies between the different forms of incoming intelligence and between the main characters form the matrix that binds the film together – and effectively so. Opening from audio recordings of 9/11 phone calls and air traffic control messages into graphic depictions of the torture of suspects in the aftermath, the scene is set for a difficult movie to watch. It isn’t meant to be easy on the brain, you are forced immediately to try to distinguish between you’re revulsion at the treatment of the detainees and the urgency of the mission.
Much of the controversy gathering around this movie is whether or not it purports to condone torture. Many a review has been written claiming that the inclusion of scenes of torture were variously too exploitative or that they led to the conclusion that torture had been key to the discovery of bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. As far as I could tell, this was demonstrably false. The detainee in question certainly never gave the information up under interrogation – it was only through isolation, hopelessness and deceit that the name of his courier was finally extracted. In the other notable scenes of torture (namely the water-boarding of Abu Faraj at Guantanamo Bay), the victim of said torture gives clearly false information, that helps the hunt not one jot.
I didn’t find myself feeling that torture had led to the execution of bin Laden, rather I was left with the impression that it was the tenacity of operatives in the field and analysts at home that had led to his demise, and surely this was in fact the case.
In terms of cinematography and direction, Zero Dark Thirty cannot be faulted as you move from the cold corridors of Langley to the muddled streets of Pakistan and on to the night-vision guided halls of bin Laden’s fortress home. The characters interleave tensely throughout, in what can only be described as difficult relationships. Jessica Chastain lends herself to the role well, looking as she does like she could probably handle a couple more pies for breakfast. The weight of the task assigned her can be felt growing and growing until she becomes a woman obsessed, until the final moment of relief completes the pastiche.
Whilst not as accessible as The Hurt Locker, ZDT is surely a superior, if similar, work. Kathryn Bigelow has, in my estimation, successfully walked the tightrope that making a movie of this import and topicality was always going to be. It was never meant to be a documentary, nor journalism. The aim was to transmit the sensation of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and to this end she has created a masterpiece.