Zero Dark Thirty

· Thursday January 31, 2013

It’s impossible to discuss director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s documentary-style drama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden without discussing the backlash that has preceded it into cinemas. Critics say it gives an ‘inaccurate’, ‘slanted’, even ‘vile and immoral’ view of historical events, and that by not explicitly criticising the CIA practices of torture and extraordinary rendition, it’s defending them.

This wasn’t my impression at all. Zero Dark Thirty argues that the search for bin Laden was spearheaded by an isolated group of workers for whom it became a soul-corrosive obsession. Even more than in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow uses the linear structure of a procedural to show how devastatingly a master narrative (KILL BIN LADEN!) can crush all countervailing ideas.

We never learn anything about CIA analyst Maya (Jessica Chastain) apart from her escalating professional zeal. Her interactions with colleagues – especially affable torturer Dan (Jason Clarke), fellow operative Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) and Pakistan bureau chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) – seem motivated primarily by how much Maya believes they’re helping or hindering her.

Compare it to the Naomi Watts film Fair Game, which is much more nakedly didactic about CIA culture and moral righteousness. What bothers some critics about Zero Dark Thirty is its dispassionate, observational tone, which they take as the filmmakers’ endorsement of what’s depicted. But while it doesn’t necessarily critique institutional practices, it’s definitely a moral film.

Although I already knew how Zero Dark Thirty ends, I found it totally absorbing – which is terrifying. We, the audience, can glimpse how easily emotions are channelled in pursuit of a goal, and misgivings disastrously suppressed or ignored. And for Maya and the elite assassination squad who do her bidding, victory isn’t triumphal. It’s bewildering. It’s a loss of purpose. It’s defeat.