Morally questionable or unquestionably riveting?

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty. Photo: Universal Pictures
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty. Photo: Universal Pictures
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty. Photo: Universal Pictures
Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty. Photo: Universal Pictures

Zero Dark Thirty
Dir. Kathryn Bigelow

It is difficult to think of a film in recent memory that has polarised audiences and critics quite like Zero Dark Thirty. Kathryn Bigelow’s latest has been attacked over its treatment of the US government’s policy of ‘advanced interrogation’ during the search for Osama Bin Laden, and while the director’s assertion that ‘depiction does not equal endorsement’ is of course correct, it neglects to address the greater issue that has so riled the film’s detractors – namely, the subtle misrepresentation of torture as a successful component of the operation that ultimately led to the death of the world’s most wanted man.

While this dubious narrative modification alone doesn’t justify the neo-Riefenstahl tag that Bigelow has been saddled with by some political commentators, it does present a moral quandary for which there is not an easy response. But whether or not Zero Dark Thirty is a piece of torture-endorsing, Bush administration sympathising, borderline-fascistic propaganda, cinematically there is no question. Bigelow has crafted a
quite extraordinary film – a brooding, challenging, visceral epic that constitutes a worthy successor to 2008’s sublime The Hurt Locker.

Spanning multiple continents and almost ten years, ZDT’s sprawling chronicle of the ‘greatest manhunt in history’ follows the attempts of CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) to locate, and either capture or eliminate, Bin Laden in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks.

A fascinating anti-heroine, Maya is portrayed brilliantly by Chastain, and provides the film with a fittingly enigmatic lead. Cold, often callous, and fanatically driven to succeed, she is an arresting, frequently intimidating presence throughout, and forms perhaps the greatest example of the moral complexity that Zero Dark Thirty presents to its audience.

Recruited directly from high school and immediately assigned to the Bin Laden operation, Maya is a portrait of obsession, a woman who has become profoundly consumed by her single, at times seemingly mythical, objective. Even as the film reaches its conclusion we still know very little about her, but we can see that she’s tired and spent – a husk. She has witnessed, and then participated in torture in order to achieve her end, and while she has never questioned her ultimate goal, we have. Entirely factual or not, Zero Dark Thirty demonstrates the cost of the war on terror, and the nature of the damaged – or in the case of Jason Clarke’s fellow CIA officer, downright abhorrent – individuals at its vanguard.

This questioning of values, of the weighting of one man’s life against countless others, is the film’s greatest achievement, but it is matched in turn by its director’s ability to maintain an almost constant, palpable dramatic tension. There is no twist in Zero Dark Thirty, we know the ending already, and yet each scene is charged with a nervous, compelling energy. Mark Boal’s script lends the dialogue an exacting edge, and the final act in particular delivers a quite stunning, electrifying climax.

Whatever your thoughts on the politics behind it, then, Zero Dark Thirty remains a film that should be seen. On a purely cinematic level it engages with a superb cast, sharp writing and Bigelow’s exceptional direction, but as a focal point for the discussion of some of the most significant issues of the present day, it offers even more.

Confronting, provocative, and masterfully constructed, Zero Dark Thirty may be morally questionable, but it is also unquestionably riveting.


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