Wednesday, 30 January 2013


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Investigative journalism meets docu-drama in Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal's follow-up to The Hurt Locker which chronicles the C.I.A.'s decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden post-September 11. Based in fact and fictionalised to protect (and somewhat entertain), it's a thorough, exhaustive procedural which begins with torture and ends with death.

That death, of course, is bin Laden's at the hands of Navy SEALS in Pakistan in May 2011; a near thirty minute, terrifically recreated storming of bin Laden's compound in the middle of the night (the sequence shot as if through night vision goggles) providing a suitably tense climax to the hunt and the film.

But the real talking point has been the torture sequences which open Zero Dark Thirty. There has been much debate in American media and Congress about the torture; not so much challenging that it occurred, but if it actually led to their man's capture.

Some have also questioned whether Bigelow's depiction of such interrogation procedures -- carried out on undisclosed US bases in foreign countries -- are an endorsement of torture. That's a crock but whether or not a fabrication of facts, it adds to both the authenticity of the film and the moral complexity. Given the bin Laden led al-Qaeda was responsible for the September 11 attacks on the U.S., is an equally ruthless and brutal response to capture him justified?

Maya (Jessica Chastain), the C.I.A.'s agent in charge of the mission to capture Osama bin Laden, starts out a little wet behind the ears and queasy in the tummy when she witnesses the interrogation methods of a colleague (an excellent Jason Clarke) but before long finds herself ordering the screws figuratively be applied to prisoners who can provide pertinent information. With a change of administration in 2008 (President Obama is glimpsed briefly on a TV set declaring torture has no place in US policy going forward), Maya is warned not to be caught holding the evidence.

What Maya won't let go of is the chase. Like a bloodhound who has caught the scent, she knows her man is out there and every piece of information is bringing her slowly but steadily closer. And when it does -- that compound in Pakistan -- she's not about to let her superiors (Mark Strong, one of many solid performers in the film's ensemble) let sleeping dogs lie; they wait more than three months to make their movie and Maya is on their case every day.

Chastain, a fine actress who has seemingly come from nowhere in the last two years, anchors the action of Zero Dark Thirty and is the perfect entry point into Bigelow and Boal's labyrinth of a film. But we know nothing about Maya, her personal life: her life is the mission and this makes her more of a cipher than a full-blooded character. That may be a deliberate attempt by the filmmakers to hide the identity of the actual agent who led the investigation, but it does little to engage us emotionally. An intriguing female character? Sure. The best female performance of the year? Not for mine.

The real star of Zero Dark Thirty is Kathryn Bigelow. The first woman to win the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker (2009) trumps that effort with a film far more ambitious and complex. That makes her omission from this year's Academy Awards nominees for Best Director all the more surprising, more so than Ben Affleck's Argo (coincidentally another film about the US and C.I.A.'s dealing in the Middle East).

Zero Dark Thirty is a director's film and I doubt another filmmaker could have achieved the same end result that Bigelow has. It seems just as the 'war on terror' continues at a measured pace, so too does the battle to break down the gender bias of the Directors' Branch of the Academy. Bigelow may have won the battle in 2009 but the war still wages on.

1 comment:

  1. Really a good movie. Jessica is so natural that you can almost feel her pain and frustration. And one thing which hurts me all the time--why my beloved India lack the same determination to kill all those a**h***s who are killing innocent people and spilling blood down the streets. They just play politics. Anyways that's another discussion--go4 this movie without girlfriend probably :)