Zero Dark Thirty

Posted on: 1st February 2013  |

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong
UK Release date: 25 January 2013
Certificate: 15 (157 mins)

Zero Dark Thirty featured heavily on the news as well as the reviews pages in the run up to its release. The new film from Kathryn Bigelow (whose previous film, The Hurt Locker swept the board during the 2010 awards season) is a well-researched and expertly-crafted drama about the search for Osama Bin Laden, his discovery and his assassination.

The intense media coverage has focused largely on the early scenes of the film, which are graphic reconstructions of torture. Questions have been raised not only about the film’s stance on torture, which I will discuss later, but about the use of classified material in its production. The filmmakers deny that intelligence secrets were used in this project, although the rumour could only have been good for the hype.

The story follows Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, a young CIA officer, assigned to the US Embassy in Pakistan in 2003. Her job is to gather intelligence that will lead to the capture of senior al-Qaeda operatives and, ultimately, Osama bin Laden. The early scenes that have come under attack show Maya witnessing her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) using torture and humiliation during the interrogation of a detainee. There are instances of waterboarding (the infamous technique of simulating drowning), as well as beatings, bodily confinement in a minute box and humiliation.

A lead gathered from interrogations of several detainees – which Maya quickly begins to participate in, rather than just observe – becomes a focus, even an obsession, for Maya, even though her colleagues, including her good friend, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) are sceptical about its significance. Five years pass and the tension rises as al-Qaeda seems to have the upper hand with a series of suicide bombings: London, Islamabad, Baghdad and Afghanistan. As the early volume of information recedes, Maya remains doggedly focused on the search for bin Laden, even when Dan returns to Washington having sickened of his job and offers her the opportunity to follow him. Maya declines and, spurred on by a sense of personal loss, she dedicates herself to reviewing interrogation tapes in search of the missing link that will lead her to ‘UBL’, despite pressure from senior figures to divert her attention to other causes.

Her tenacity is rewarded when a discovery in the intelligence archives allows Maya to pick up her lead again, with the help of a team on the ground who are as cynical about her determination as her intelligence colleagues. Having returned to the US to present the comprehensive intelligence that she and her team have gathered, Maya still has to fight persistently to convince the CIA authorities that she has found where bin Laden is hiding, and over 100 days pass before the White House can be persuaded to take the action that Maya is urging. A high level meeting sees the CIA Director grilling his deputies about their level of confidence in Maya’s information and the team concede only a 60% likelihood that Osama bin Laden occupies the compound that Maya has located. We are led to believe that the president approved the US Naval SEAL raid of 2 May 2011 with this level of conviction.

The raid itself is depicted in detailed and dramatic fashion, the sombre and disconcerting nature of the task mirrored in the visual darkness of the night-time raid and the whirring of the prototype stealth helicopters used. This section of the film has an element of suspense that is impressive, given that the outcome will be well-known by anybody watching the film. The SEALs charged with the raid are given a decent amount of screen time, too – they are characters in their own right, rather than just executors of somebody else’s plan. Maya tracks the raid from the Afghanistan airbase and confirms the identity of the body that is brought back. We finally see her emotion in the final frames of the film.

The film is brilliantly acted and convincing in its staging; it is also compelling in its depiction of the scale and persistence of the search for Osama bin Laden. The use of the ultra-focussed yet feminine Maya as the narrative lead is beguiling, too. But the way in which Zero Dark Thirty depicts torture is inevitably the aspect of the film that will be the subject of most analysis.

The film acknowledges the early endorsement of torture as a strategy for obtaining ‘intelligence’ post-9/11, and later the distancing and outright condemnation of torture that comes with a change of president. The CIA operatives track this change from their undercover bases, or ‘black sites’ in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Poland, and their reaction is a personal fear that they could well become pariahs of the new administration.

However, the film does not choose to assert that torture is wholly wrong; not does it offer any explicit comment on the quality of information obtained through torture. But there is a quiet message in the film that information obtained from torture started a chain that ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden, with the implication that if you agree with the premise that killing bin Laden was a good thing, the ends justify the means.

Zero Dark Thirty is Oscar-nominated in five categories, including Best Picture and Best Actress (Jessica Chastain), However, for all the attention to detail and superb acting, it is ultimately a commercial venture and therefore I worry that the potential consequences of its release have been disregarded: the repercussions of revealing how intelligence was gathered; the possibility of an incitement to hatred. I find myself asking if it might have been better to do nothing. Should this film, impressive as it is, have been made?

Jane Leek-Kelly

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