It’s a little on the right-wing side of the war on terror argument but Zero Dark Thirty is an intelligent thriller which is at times engrossing and exciting.
It is quite an achievement of the film that while the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden is told in almost documentary like meticulous detail, and we know the ending, it is still a very dramatic piece of film making. Albeit it takes time for the tension and excitement to fully engage.
The story traces CIA agent Maya’s obsessive hunt for Osama Bin Laden over ten years, starting with her arrival at a detainee camp in the Middle East and the torture by fellow CIA agent Dan of Ammar, an Al Qaeda money man.
A fairly convoluted series of twists and turns in the hunt then follows, with Maya believing throughout, often a belief she alone holds, that a lead revealed by this first torture victim is the key to finding Osama.
This section of the film drags a bit at first with the various plot strands a little too out of reach to be fully comprehensible but they are close enough to get the gist. And punctuated amongst a lot of interrogations and CIA meetings are some genuinely exciting set pieces, most notably “the meeting” with a potential Al Qaeda informant at a base in Afghanistan.
The tension really begins to ramp up in the second half, as Maya’s frustration at her boss’s inaction starts to boil and the net around her lead – Osama’s courier, gets tighter and tighter. A scene in the crowded streets of Rawalpindii as a CIA surveillance crew try to spot the courier is another thrilling set piece.
Finally of course is the Navy Seal’s nigh time attack on the compound and the elimination of Bin Laden which is a thrilling 25 minute sequence of film.
However the sum of its parts do feel greater than the whole of the film. And perhaps the greatest hindrance to its total success is its rather piecemeal style in which different characters seem to come to the forefront of the drama. This prevents us getting involved with key characters at key times.
Jessica Chastain’s Maya is undoubtedly the lead player and is played very well. But in almost all the key action scenes she is watching from an office and not involved (realistically so no doubt), while those at the forefront are recently introduced characters we are not engaged with – though the scenes are often very engaging.
There is no real character development at all in fact. And there is ironically, no real bad guy either. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are almost abstract ideas (which I guess in some ways they are in reality).
Maya’s obsession with finding Bin Laden, who even her boss at one point suggests is old news, is in fact rather inexplicable. And such is the presentation of the Americans as self-righteous and arrogant “defenders of their homeland,” it is hard to find anyone with whom to really sympathise with or root for.
Though I am not sure this is the intended message. While accusations that the film shows a tolerance towards torture have been defended by director Kathryn Bigelow who says she finds torture “reprehensible,” and many critics say the torture scenes are so horrendous they are clearly anti-torture, I am not so sure.
Though not in a major way, the film for me did feel slanted towards support for the war on terror and the results that torture brings. Indeed when Obama becomes President and the detainee programme is halted, CIA agents Maya and Dan, who are the closest we have to heroes, are critical of how this impedes their work.
The effect of torture on the CIA agents inflicting it is touched upon, but only just. And the relationship between Dan and his victim is presented as so matter of fact business is business like, that it almost waters down the horror of the violence and brutality.
And the structure of the film itself – opening with the torture scenes which result in the lead that finally gets Bin Laden – suggests torture works.
But this is a rich and deep film which, while seeming to take a stance, and one I don’t like, does offer up opposing views.
Indeed one of the fascinating aspects of the film, is how the practices of CIA changes over a 10 year period, as, in the background, the attitude in Washington shifts with the replacement by President Obama of Bush. There is a great scene in the corridors of the White House involving an altercation between Mark Strong’s old school tough CIA agent and an Obama adviser, with the later pointing out that he was in the room when “your man” (i.e. Bush) sold us WMD.
And the final scenes are not ones of triumph either. In the thrilling raid on Bin Laden’s compound, it is the innocent children with whom our sympathies rest as this horrific, almost alien invasion is executed with sci-fi like gadgetry and cold precision.
And finally Maya’s emotions are pleasingly ambiguous. What has been solved?
So while it does seem to offer an opinion, it also leaves a lot up to the viewer to decide. The camera does seem to, most of the time, be observing, which along with its very realistic style adds to the film’s documentary like feel.
Yet it is also an exciting thriller, which despite being a little too cold and aloof in its detail and characterisation is a thought-provoking, fascinating and intelligent piece of film making.