Zero Dark Thirty is the latest American Military drama from Hurt Locker director Katherine Bigelow. It follows one woman’s obsessive hunt for the most wanted man of the 21st century. The film was originally conceived as a procedural concerning the fruitless and perhaps even hubristic hunt for Osama Bin Laden, questioning the relevance of such a mission or even the purpose it would serve America ten years on from 9/11.
But whereas art has a tendency to imitate life, life has a tendency to undermine art. The eventual capture and kill of the man codenamed UBL derailed Bigelow’s plan for a dour ending with many unanswered questions hanging over it, but allowing the opportunity for a more conventional Hollywood-esque climax.
The final sequence of the film, one that if the tabloids are to be believed follows the actual raid in excruciating detail, is a tense, macabre, agonisingly slow trudge through the mire of military conflict. A microcosm of the nature of war in a film that is itself a microcosm of the effect conflict has on the human soul.
That effect is corrosion and our subject (played by Jessica Chastain) is known simply as Maya. Her lack of a second name highlights her function in the film as a husk of humanity. Someone who watches the most appalling things humans can do to one another with a sandwich in one hand and a telephone receiver in the other. The film has a cold attitude towards the issues raised, amplified by the way the characters react to most situations. The camera is almost a bystander, its contribution a coincidence, not a matter of design; it is there simply to record and never to judge.
This is the level of non-participation the creative have on events, its dramatized documentary, a recreation of reality with fictional people. Chastain’s ambivalence towards the human suffering that is the inevitable by-product of industrialised war is fascinating in its apathy. Never has such a lack of emotional engagement been so engaging for an audience to watch. Slowly you notice the makeup erode from her face, the minimal reactions she has to the violence around her disappear altogether.
The thought of a war movie hero reacting to brutality with nothing but a stoic silence is nothing new, but the violence in Zero Dark Thirty is far from the usual template of Hollywood glorification. Sound effects are kept to a minimum and are portrayed as realistic as opposed to cartoonish, blood is plentiful but is more than just liquid gore, it clots, it stains, it collects in the corners of people’s mouths.
This isn’t violence kicked up to eleven in order for the human mind to sanitise it, to reason that its exaggerated nature must mean it’s fictional and benign. This is as real and uncensored as violence in movies gets. Compounding that fact, it is not only physical it is philological. Grown men are treated like dogs, put to their knees, deprived of food and sleep, their thoughts are manipulated and controlled. And for Maya to just stare at this with a poker face, the only barely visible trait of emotion is that of mild inconvenience, is evidence of a tragically compelling arc.
The problem the film faces though lies in the narrative that found itself catching up to current events half way through production. As Maya hardens she becomes more and more identifiable as a traditional hard assed action hero, albeit one who deals in words and rumours rather than guns and ammunition. She follows her gut, goes with her instinct and to hell with anyone who gets in her way.
The problem stems from the fact that we know she’s right. Aside from decimating any chance at dramatic tension created by the characters rash reasoning, it more unforgivably suggests that Bigelowe has taken a side. Raw brute military power was right all along. Torture, bombs, paranoid security procedures all of which might be unpleasant, ultimately are revealed to be crucial to the cause of stopping terrorists and bringing them to justice.
These scenes are the kind in which she bangs on table tops, clashes with her superiors and throws about profanity like Samuel L Jackson. All of this only seeks to take the film into the kinds of territory you were admiring it for being above. It treads dangerously close to the derivative domain of one man (sorry, person) against the world territory. But if it were different, if Osama bin Laden was alive then these moments would have made a lot more sense.
The whole way through the film the air of hubris runs thick. Maya’s running at her mission a hundred miles per hour and the whole way through you feel Bigalowe is leading her into a brick wall. Like all of this chest beating, all of this table thumping will just prove to be useless and impotent. The film never feels as if it’s truly adapted to its new set of circumstances, like all they ultimately changed was the ending. You genuinely feel the film is leading you in the direction of moral ambiguity to castrate the American Intelligence system, to punish them and Maya for their bull-headishness, their arrogance and suspicion. But then you realise the film can only end one way so you start to feel it is praising the kind of right wing paranoia this film shares with others like Taken or Bourne. The latter feels like an unintended side effect
It’s not until the very end do you see some kind of internal questioning within the characters. After a task force specialist accidentally takes out a woman in bin Laden’s complex the camera lingers on his unmoving eye just long enough to betray some hint of the film makers morality. And after bin Laden has been killed, Chastain does something that no one in this film on either side has done so far. She releases her emotion. She stares straight at the camera and lets the tears tumble down.
But the film still keeps its cards close to its chest. Because for all the reasons she might have to cry, the film will still not tell you what that reason is. It could be an exclamation of the joy she feels at accomplishing atask she has spent ten years working on.
It could be because she has spent her soul trying to find the world’s most despised terrorist and she isn’t sure it was worth the price.