Movie of the week: Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow’s movie Zero Dark Thirty and the TV series Homeland make me think we have a new American genre — war-on-terror procedurals. Black sites, Washington corridors, tense SUV rides through dangerous city streets in Pakistan, operation rooms containing corkboards packed with names and faces … this could be a regular new milieu for flawed, maverick, attractive young investigators.
Zero Dark Thirty is a key text: a spy drama about the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden, starring Jessica Chastain as the CIA agent Maya on a personal mission to nail the United States’s Public Enemy No 1.
It is well made, with a relentless, dour drumbeat of tension and a great final sequence, but it’s nowhere near as good as the first season of Homeland, whose troubled heroine Carrie resembles Maya in key particulars. The movie doesn’t have the TV show’s subversive, satirical sass and fictional limberness. Zero Dark Thirty sticks solemnly and submissively to the CIA’s official version of events, as received by screenwriter Mark Boal from his anonymous sources.
This really is overdog cinema, whose machismo is not tempered by Chastain’s faintly preposterous, flame-haired character showing up at various locations as if for a Vogue cover shoot, at one point with some cool aviator shades.
The waterboarding scenes are unwatchably horrible. The agency’s torturer, Dan (Jason Clarke), is apparently entirely callous, ostentatiously caring more for the soldiers’ pet caged monkeys in Guantánamo Bay than the human inmates. Does this movie show torture getting results? It’s ambiguous — and slippery. At first, the film makes a very big deal of showing us torture failing to get results. Then Barack Obama comes in, clamps down on torture, and the agency resorts to conventional analysis and clerical spadework, turning up a crucial long-overlooked lead, relating to “Abu Ahmed”, Bin Laden’s courier. But they wouldn’t know that name was important without the intelligence gained through torture.
What the movie does is maintain a dramatically numbed, non-judgmental view on the torture and then on the non-torture. There is no tonal shift and no disavowal. They just change their tactics and the movie stays toughly, undemonstratively on-side with the CIA good guys.
There is nothing in Zero Dark Thirty comparable to Gavin Hood’s soul-searching 2007 movie, Rendition, in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s CIA agent denounces waterboarding information as valueless; he quotes The Merchant of Venice and says torture victims “speak upon the rack,/ Where men enforced do speak anything”. I can well believe that, but for me the most sinister depiction of torture is non-depiction. Many Hollywood movies about the war on terror have managed to ignore the subject, implying nonexistence. Despite its fence-sitting, I prefer Bigelow’s account.
The final scene is edge-of-the-seat stuff, shot with masterly coolness. The recent pulpy version of the same story by John Stockwell, Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden, is inferior to Bigelow’s, but Stockwell did acknowledge the existence of those Pakistani nationals who helped the Americans to get into the country — and are now locked up for it.
It’s an effective thriller, uninterested in anyone other than the home team. — © Guardian News and Media 2013