The greatest manhunt in modern history plays catalyst to a gripping tale of obsession both dark and dangerous in the engrossing, character rich and symbolically astute Zero Dark Thirty.
A curious thing has happened in American cinema since the tragic events of 9/11 and its resulting “War on Terror.” Where many filmmakers proudly waved their anti-George W. Bush presidency flag with films such as Body of Lies and Rendition (both critical of coalition governments and their intelligence agencies), a shift has seen that critical eye turn into a much warmer – but never biased – gaze.
Where Argo pointed to the past in its lauding of the CIA and Skyfall used a fictional national treasure to applaud MI6, Zero Dark Thirty gets down, gritty and beautifully apolitical in its look into how the CIA pieced together intelligence to capture terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden.
It comes from director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, who also refused to politicise their Iraq war thriller The Hurt Locker. Regardless, controversy has engulfed the Oscar winning duo with some criticising them of glorifying torture as a proficient method of extracting information. As the first scenes of Zero Dark Thirty attest, there is no glorification to be found with Bigelow presenting a suitably confronting picture of torture that is wincingly graphic in its realistic violence. While the process itself was shameful, the depiction of it is not.
Watching on is CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), transferred to Pakistan with the sole task of finding Osama Bin Laden. Dubbed a “killer” for her ferocious laser focus to her job, Maya instantly becomes one of the most memorable tough girl characters to hit the screen, complete with the type of no BS taking one liners usually reserved for an action movie, but strangely suited to this story and especially this character.
Chastain plays the role with stone-cold intensity, fuelled by anger directed towards a target (Bin Laden) so elusive that he is more phantom than terrorist leader. Yet Chastain adds many shades of grey to a character whose black & white goal to kill the “world’s most dangerous man” is one filled with many complex emotions that she beautifully conveys.
Although a fictional character, Maya is an amalgamation of CIA agents Boal and Bigelow came across in their research. It’s quite remarkable how the pair managed to take 12 years of information (including a conclusion that everyone knows) and packaged it into a coherent, intimate and intense movie. Sure the structure of the film can feel episodic, but with this type of material it works to take in the information in chapters. Having great editors like William Goldenberg and Dylan Tichenor on board helps a great deal.
With Zero Dark Thirty Bigelow and Boal have presented a different kind of espionage environment. It’s one filled with paper work, meetings, and sifting through a never ending stream of intelligence. But it’s also one where the stakes are always high, danger is found at every turn, where a hunch can lead to a breakthrough and misinformation can lead to wasted years of chasing ghosts.
Through Maya we share the successes and frustrations of tracking down the head of a snake so twisted and slippery it’s of no wonder that it took over a decade to get a strangle hold on him. Yet Maya represents more than the CIA, she is America herself: wounded, driven and in conflict on how to move on after killing the bogeyman that haunted their nightmares for too long.