The Greatest Manhunt In History
Zero Dark Thirty is the only real chance for any form of cinematic closure on 9/11, the Iraq war and the invasion of Afghanistan. Unlike Vietnam there was no draft and any incursions have been kept secret on an international level. As such, there’s not a great deal to show for it. I’m not saying that’s how war works but it’s definitely how films about war work. Subsequently, a film on this subject matter is going to be a little slow paced and feature a lot of bungling. Considering there is a whole generation of children who are now starting high school having no first-hand knowledge of the 2001 attacks, movies like this one are how they will remember events (arguably). Despite the immense critical praise, I believe this film is a reasonably efficient thriller but its message is all but absent, leaving the whole thing horribly hollow.
The film opens a few years after the 9/11 US attacks to a CIA operative, Dan [Clarke], in an undisclosed location water boarding a captive to reveal information about how al-Qaeda and its terrorist cells operate. Watching the interrogation is a fairly new CIA officer, Maya [Chastain], who has been recruited out of high school and will be overseeing the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden. After rigorous sessions, they trick their prisoner into finally revealing a small piece of information about a high ranking courier using the alias Abu Ahmed. With this tiny strand of information, Maya begins building her case, following up on all leads and working through stacks of DVDs with detainee confessions and interviews. As the years go on, attacks continue and the press grill the President about human rights for prisoners, the locating of their target looks bleak. Subsequently, the CIA begin to pull funding and resources but Maya is determined that she is not only on the right track but that she will discover her target’s location and have him executed as soon as she can persuade her hesitant superiors.
From a technical standpoint, Zero Dark Thirty is brilliantly crafted. The direction and editing ensure that the excessive running time feels tolerable, the cinematography and set design really set the tone and oppressive feel of the various locations and Alexandre Desplat’s moody minimalist score solidifies the slow-burn tension that creeps in throughout. With this, The Hurt Locker and K-19: The Widowmaker, Bigelow has proven herself a master of military thriller pieces and exploring the human side of the services. Considering how Call Of Duty this could have been, it has been completely saved by Bigelow’s steady hand. Additionally, she should be praised for the plot’s clinical execution and honesty, illustrated by the fact that it laces itself with the shame and the fuck-ups to illustrate the rocky road to completing this mission. Furthermore, it’s devoid of that unnecessarily patriotic bullshit that could have so easily crept in and sullied the entire film. Unfortunately, this simply means it plays off like an overly long, dull documentary with a very good lead performance.
I’m not entirely sure but I think this film sort of endorses torture as a productive means of information extraction.. which, arguably, it is but that doesn’t mean it’s commendable. I doubt anyone set out to make a pro-torture argument and anyone who says as much probably has their own agenda but by ignoring the fact that torture techniques lead to erroneous claims, audiences can’t help but walk away from this film in the unarguable position that torture helped ascertain the location of Osama Bin Laden. As far as the narrative is concerned, Maya is our connection point, our empathetic lead from which we draw sentiment and emotion. It may sound preachy or high and mighty but I find it difficult to be drawn in by human sentiment when human lives are treated so brutally through torture (even if their actions deserve it). I’m not necessarily marking this against the film but everyone’s going to talk about it. What I will say, however is that witnessing this should have had a greater impact on the character, to allow us (as an audience) to connect with her – but I’ll expand on this in my highlighted character section.
Two of this film’s biggest flaws are scripting and character development. The story is long and drawn out, doing its best to condense ten years of fruitless sleuthing with interlaced reminders of successful terrorist attacks across the western world. This means that supporting characters are pretty hard to come by and are ultimately limited to a couple of scenes before disappearing. On top of that, there’s no real explanation for Maya’s drive, other than it’s her job and she sees terrible things on news reports and blames herself. In fact, the sheer lack of backstories, which should staple that these individuals are ‘all about the job’, simply leave the audience cold. One of the more disorientating scenes takes place in a corridor, as Maya and Joseph argue their positions. Maya complains that the CIA have aren’t giving her their full support and that by withholding means and resources, she will lose her lead on catching Osama Bin Laden. All very true and delivered with passion and earnest resolve. On the other hand, Joseph highlights that she may be chasing a dead-end lead that could cost hundreds and thousands of dollars to no avail, furthermore he insinuates that catching Osama Bin Laden is somewhat irrelevant, that while it may bring the country some semblance of closure it won’t stop attacks. Also a very valid point. So we have two points here of equal validity which is suddenly overruled by a reverse psychology line about ‘being the only station chief in CIA history who let Osama Bin Laden get away’. So when presented with a genuine argument about why the pursuit of this individual is necessary, why Maya is fighting so hard to find this individual (other than national vengeance) the script’s only response is a childish, “Because we gotta get Osama!”? Damn shame.
Zero Dark Thirty is a perfectly acceptable military/political thriller but only to the degree that Body Of Lies was. Nothing ground breaking or spectacular but interesting. As one with no political or philosophical thoughts on the real-life events (and if I do have any opinions, I wouldn’t let them cloud my critical assessment), all I can do is analyse and rate the film as a standalone piece and I have found it wanting.
25th January 2013
The Scene To Look Out For:
The actual breach of the compound in Pakistan is very well shot. In fact, it’s superbly executed in both its honesty and tense realism. I have no idea how accurate it actually was – I’m fairly confident this operation was rehearsed on a mock-up somewhere in the States but that’s not really important. What is important is the artistic flare with which the whole scene was executed and overseen. Tense, compelling and a nice payoff after two and a bit hours build up.
Chastain gives a great performance, there’s no doubt about that. Her laser-like focus and unwavering drive is engaging but it’s never really explained. So, while this is a great performance, she’s in fact a poor character. As previously stated, motivation outside of occupational obligation and civic duty are abandoned but more importantly, the first time we’re introduced to Maya, she is sitting in on a torture session, uncomfortable with the violence she witnesses. Despite this, she buries her feelings and utilises the same methods herself. But this transition is never explored. We aren’t offered an insight into how she made this transition or if it still plagues her. It’s an unfortunately missed opportunity and one which would have made her character a little more relatable.
“A lot of my friends have died trying to do this, I believe I was spared so I could finish the job”
In A Few Words:
“I’m grateful that a certain amount of tact, restraint and modesty was used to make this release but I shouldn’t have left the cinema feeling almost indifferent and unmoved. Disappointing”