Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Jessica Chastain, James Gandolfini, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong 15A cert, general release, 157 min
The deafening hubbub of controversy surrounding Kathryn Bigelow’s knuckle-whitening study of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden makes it difficult to objectively assess the film’s merits. It’s like trying to review a movie while the CIA blasts songs by Barney the dinosaur from beyond the compound wall.
Is it a Battle of Algiers for the colonists? Is it a whistle-blowing exercise disguised as a procedural thriller? Such is the opaque nature of Mark Boal’s writing – the US left and right seem equally angry at the thing – that it proves almost impossible to say.
Zero Dark Thirty begins with phone recordings from the 9/11 attacks played to a blank screen. We then jump forward in time to find an obsessed CIA analyst named Maya – played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain – watching uncomfortably as her colleague tortures a captive in some grubby corner of a “black site”.
It is a genuinely shocking sequence. More appalling than the violence – to which Hollywood has somewhat deadened us – are the exercises in structured humiliation. When a dog collar is produced, Bigelow and Boal leave us in no doubt where they stand: the abuses at Abu Ghraib (and elsewhere) are manifestations of US state thuggery.
Yet no sense of outrage is ever explicitly expressed. A key scene finds Maya and her colleagues watching President Obama on TV announcing an end to torture. Nobody reacts. To an even greater extent than Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, the new film seems committed to shrouding its moral core in a riddle wrapped in several enigmas.
Bigelow just about pulls it off.
So addictively complex is the story, so seductively sombre is the action, so overwhelming is the momentum that it proves possible to live with the intelligence that the protagonist is complicit in ground-level fascism.
Bigelow understands the indecent attractions of jargon and tradecraft. Maya, a genius surrounded by mere bright sparks, is forever whipping out verbal hardware such as: “That demonstrates pre-9/11 thinking on UBL.” Like the best John Le Carré adaptations, Zero Dark Thirty finds excitement in hurried conversations over mysterious scraps of paper. Men with neat hair and neater suits – one of whom really is played by John Barrowman – make life difficult for more complex, less cowed operatives in aviator spectacles.
The film reaches the height of its weird ethical detachment during the thrillingly staged raid on Bin Laden’s Pakistan compound. Keeping music low in the mix, shooting largely in night vision, Bigelow follows the team as – without thought for international boundaries – they shoot their way towards the summary execution of their vilified target.
The green murk that colours the images is eerily appropriate for a film determined to swim in ethical ambiguity. On balance, that is, perhaps, the right choice for a study of the secret world.