Released barely a year and a half after the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty rides high on a wave of political currency.
The Night Of The Hunter by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s perhaps the expediency with which Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have brought “the greatest manhunt in history” – the trace and capture of Osama bin Laden – to the silver screen that makes Zero Dark Thirty so awe-inspiring. And if we learned anything from Ben Affleck’s Argo it’s that it takes at least thirty years for CIA files to become declassified, so it’s not without a certain inquisitiveness that we wonder how on earth they did it. In truth, Bigelow and Boal were already in pre-production on The Battle Of Tora Bora, a film about the fruitless search for the al Qaeda leader in the Afghanistani mountains in 2001, when in May 2011 bin Laden was announced captured and killed. So with only a fistful of military contacts, director and scriptwriter shelved their current project to start again from scratch, this time on a film that would document the hunt for America’s most wanted all the way from 9/11 to Zero Dark Thirty.
Nevertheless, controversy over how the makers of Zero Dark Thirty received their information still haunts the film. And they have even been criticised of factual inaccuracies, but with scriptwriter Boal, a former war journalist, pumping contacts in the military and intelligence services, Zero Dark Thirty reconstructs the decade-long events with seductive authenticity. The doubts over whether the US administration leaked classified information to the production team as part of a windfall pre-election trumpet-blowing media campaign will perhaps be relegated to the annals of history as one of the historic talking points of the 2012 US election, but in its matter-of-fact portrait of events, Zero Dark Thirty provides an even-handed view of one woman’s hunt for her country’s nemesis. In fact, Zero Dark Thirty‘s perhaps too precipitous inflection of events is almost colourless in its objectivity, Bigelow restricted to dramatic reconstruction and ham-strung by an urgent need not to cause offence.
Refracted through the experience of CIA agent Maya, Zero Dark Thirty gives a female voice to the manhunt in this male-dominated worlds of politics, military and intelligence. And it’s a far cry from Bigelow’s testosterone and adrenaline-fuelled bomb disposal unit in The Hurt Locker. But for her story of a woman succeeding in a man’s world, Zero Dark Thirty is almost incidental; Maya is introduced as a “killer from DC” but manages to keep the audience onside by barely participating in the torture of detainees, progressing from handing over a bucket for waterboarding to instructing a soldier to beat her interrogation subject. It’s a challenge for the delicate, fragile features of Jessica Chastain to master the military aggression of a black site interrogator, and her one moment of assertiveness comes only in conjunction with a stubborn superior. But it’s perhaps the script rather than Chastain herself that tones down that female pugnacity, Bigelow here choosing likability over authenticity.
Zero Dark Thirty is the story of intelligence – the hind-sighted breadcrumbs of confessions and painstakingly pieced together intel that led to bin Laden’s capture. From its opening gambit of waterboarding and detainee abuse, Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t shy away from American use of torture, no doubt indebted to Alex Gibney’s Taxi To The Dark Side. And it’s worth mentioning that the only useful intel in the film comes from kindness and trickery, feeding and lying to the sleep-deprived detainee Ammar in exchange for further information, but still his confessions are inextricable from the economy of torture. Nevertheless, it’s the first time Abu Ahmed is mentioned, and it’s a lead Maya doggedly pursues, believing the al Qaeda courier is the key to finding bin Laden.
Her certainty brings, rather strangely, a woman’s intuition into the male military world of probability, but it’s this conviction that finally leads to the decision to intervene and captures the hearts of the GI canaries who helicopter in to Pakistan to pluck UBL from his compound. Courtesy of a smiling screenshot of Maya with her late colleague Jessica (superbly incorporated with gruff bravado by Jennifer Ehle) it’s suggested that Maya’s indefatigable will to kill al Qaeda’s founder, as she chalks up the days lost since she discovered bin Laden’s hideout, is motivated by a vengeful desire to honour her friend, even if Bigelow fails to conjure a feeling of real female kinship between the two – their relationship barely sketched from sour smiles to friendly instant messages tragically unanswered.
Jumping between CIA headquarters in the US, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the relentless ticker tape of events assaults the senses, and at times Zero Dark Thirty feels like an uphill climb to reassemble the not-so-distant events from 9/11 to bin Laden’s capture. And yet, Zero Dark Thirty also offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the making of such recent history – an awkwardly comforting humanisation of the story, which really moves up a gear with the longest sequence – the green-tinged night-vision capture of public enemy number one. But despite the aspic of emotional detachment from events, Alexandre Desplat’s masterful score lends an epic weight to events as they unfurl, which along with the almost reliquary presence of bin Laden and his corpse, glimpsed only by a beard or a nose, embalms the story with an aura of sacredness.
Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece in non-triumphant political victory – even refusing, with reverent delicacy, to capture in film the killing of al Qaeda’s leader. The title, which takes its name from a military term for half past midnight – the hour at which the canaries embarked on their black op mission to find and kill bin Laden – mirrors 9/11 in its numeracy. And it suggests, alongside Maya’s final-reel tears, finally able to mourn her friends lost in the war and the victims of terror, that the war is over. It’s a feeling of closure that may bring subtle comfort to some, but still it’s a long road from 9/11 to Zero Dark Thirty, and Kathryn Bigelow’s film is more likely to leave you heaving a sigh of relief, and feeling battered, broken and bruised.
Zero Dark Thirty is released on 25th January 2013 in the UK