Zero Dark Thirty – Katherine Bigelow, 2012

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The team who brought us ‘The Hurt Locker’, Director Katherine Bigelow and Screenwriter Mark Boal, team up again to portray a potted version of the decade long search for Osama Bin Laden. The story follows determined C.I.A analyst, Maya, who devotes her life to tracking down the Al Qaeda leader.

The film starts with a heart wrenching soundscape of chaotic recordings taken from people trapped inside the twin towers as they were engulfed in flames on 9th September 2001. Staring at the blank screen you realise how many times you’ve seen the film footage, how those images are seared into the public consciousness. This approach makes it a lot more personal. Going from that, straight into scenes of interrogation on an American base might mislead you into thinking this is a simple revenge story.

But Katherine Bigelow is much more subtle than that. She has a brilliant knack of seeming impartial and asking her audience what they think instead of asserting her own agenda or opinions. She has been criticised for advocating torture and indeed this film does open with graphic depictions of a prisoner undergoing a series of torture methods. But through her lead character Maya, I think she is making the case for intellect, rather than brutality, in combating terrorism. Indeed, the film explores the changes to U.S. interrogation policies throughout the 10 years leading up to Bin Ladens Assassination. Maya is visibly uncomfortable witnessing the ordeals of the prisoner but remains stoic in the line of duty. She is unconvinced by the methods of her colleagues and instead suggests they play a more insidious game with their captive, manipulating him into revealing information.

What follows is an abridged and highly dramatised account of the hunt for Bin Laden, played out in C.I.A offices and American army bases throughout the world. We’re not watching a documentary, so don’t expect any cold hard facts. What you can expect is a summation of the missed opportunities, the failures, the red tape and bureaucracy of U.S intelligence over ten years of investigation in the lead up to the discovery and eventual raid on the compound where Bin Laden was found to be hiding. Bigelow not only manages to keep the level of tension and expectation high throughout but also to present some really believable characters. Mark Strong is a boisterous senior C.I.A. supervisor, frustrated with the lack of progress and ingenuity from his team. James Gandolfini is the impassive C.I.A director who just wants to know his head is not going to be on the block. And Jennifer Ehle plays the dogged senior analyst whose friendship with Maya is based on mutual respect and camaraderie but whose pursuit of the evidence ultimately backfires.

Maya, played by Jessica Chastian, is a fantastic character. She is socially awkward, focused to the point of obsessive and not afraid to put peoples noses out of joint. She is also undeterred by the testosterone fuelled and too-proud world of the C.I.A. Because she is an unknown quantity, but perhaps also because she is a woman, her superiors fail to take her research seriously time and time again. Maya is forced to become more and more unlikeable in order to be heard.

I also found the character of Hakim very interesting. Played by the Swedish-Assyrain actor Fares Fares, Hakim has presumably been brought into the operation to assimilate seamlessly into Afghan culture, he is the only one who casts a questioning eye over the human cost of the assassination of Bin Laden. In the aftermath of the raid on the compound, shot in disorientating night vision, Hakim is the only solider who lets himself be affected by the carnage around him. Through him, again, I feel Bigelow and Boal asking us, what right do we have?

In the final scene Maya boards a military plane, alone, the morning after identifying Bin Ladens body and finally lets her guard down. This is the only time we see her humanity. The expression of relief and emptiness on her face is striking. The hunt has taken 10 years of her life and has defined who she is. Was it worth it? What does she pour her energy into now?

The film certainly made me think about the efficacy of western foreign policies, about our arrogance and impunity. But I think it is a message which can at times be lost in amongst some patriotic heart string tugging.

Oh and yes, it passes the Bechdel test.

 

 

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