27 January 2013

"Everybody Breaks in the End, Bro. It's Biology"

Katherine Bigelow's new film Zero Dark Thirty opens with a completely black screen. It is 9/11 and we can hear a mishmash of calls placed to the emergency services by people trapped in the Twin Towers. Images aren't necessary; we can all imagine. Then, we jump to 2003 and Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA operative has just arrived in Pakistan on what will, for the next eight years, be a hunt for Osama Bin Laden. As she watches her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) torture a "detainee" to try to obtain information about a man who might lead to a lead to Bin Laden, her disgust is apparent initially.

Dan and her boss (Kyle Chandler) comment on how young and green she seems, but Mrs O'Brien from The Tree of Life she is not. She is tough and driven and when torture—including waterboarding—brings her a step closer to her personal quest to find Bin Laden, she is willing, if not happy, to sanction it. When she stumbles on a link to a close associate of Bin Laden's, known only as Abu Ahmed, Maya thinks the end might be in sight, but we the audience know it isn't going to be that simple. It's also dangerous work. Maya watches friends and colleagues get hurt and killed, and she is attacked in her own car. When she arrives in Pakistan, she is wearing a very Washington black suit, and although she eventually adapts to more neutral, casual clothes and a headscarf, you also see her later on in her home, wearing a burkha with her feet up, munching on a cheese string and drinking a beer.

And Maya never wavers from her theory that Abu Ahmed will lead them to Bin Laden. "I know certainty freaks you guys out, but it's 100%," she says in a meeting with senior figures at the CIA about whether the compound they have identified is Bin Laden's hiding place. But although she has been working diligently on this case for a decade, tirelessly researching and analyzing new data, you get the impression that it really just is a very strong hunch. Based on the best data available, of course, but still a bit of a leap in the dark. It turns out that she happens to be right.

I went to see Bigelow's last film, The Hurt Locker, on a whim, tempted, I think, by a free ticket. It wasn't the kind of film I normally enjoyed, but I ended up liking it a lot. Zero Dark Thirty is gripping and very engaging. I don't like Bigelow's use of chapter titles to section the film, which I think she also used in The Hurt Locker and which I find distracting. The movie is a little too long—aren't all the Best Picture nominees this year?—but still interesting, right up until the final act, the raid on the compound in which Bin Laden was hiding, which plays out almost in real time. The film was initially going to be about the failure to find Bin Laden, but during the writing process, the events of this final act took place, which rather changed things. Jessica Chastain was wonderful, as always, as the not usually very likeable but driven, disciplined Maya. A lot of the other performances were good too, but no one else really stood out for me. Zero Dark Thirty is bold, dark, intense and often difficult to watch. It's not really the kind of film that you enjoy, but it's certainly compelling and thought-provoking.

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