Threat level midnight – Zero Dark Thirty review

Zero Dark Thirty – Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, and Jennifer Ehle. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Rated MA. By Simon Miraudo.

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This thing is an embarrassment of riches; the jewel in director Kathryn Bigelow‘s crown. The most accomplished procedural since David Fincher‘s superb Zodiac, gifted with an esteemed, oddball ensemble cast anchored by a career-best Jessica Chastain. Its ending is perhaps the most heart-pounding action set-piece this side of Touch of Evils opening moments. Zero Dark Thirty also has the honour of being one of the most important American films (and interesting experiments) in years, if only for acting as a political lightning rod; taking blows from both the left and the right over its depiction of torture in the search for Osama bin Laden. Ironically, bagging out Zero Dark Thirty is the closest thing to bipartisanship the U.S. government has displayed in eons.

Bigelow, along with her partner, co-producer, and screenwriter Mark Boal, had originally set out to detail the CIA’s failed attempts to take out the notorious al-Qaeda leader in the years after 2001. Then, in what could have led to the most awkward, ill-timed intersection of cinema with real-life events since the release of family flick SpaceCamp a mere five months after the Challenger explosion (tagline: “Suddenly… without warning…”), President Barack Obama announced to the world that the scourge of The West had been captured and killed. Their ending now re-written by SEAL Team Six, Zero Dark Thirty narrowly avoided pop-culture irrelevancy. In its current iteration, it’s arguably one of the most significant releases of the decade. Abu Ghraib, Lynndie England, and Guantanamo Bay haven’t been on our lips for some time, and memories of the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” had been all but forgotten in the wake of Bin Laden’s death. Now, with his corpse washed away in the sea, they’re all back at the forefront of our minds, and we have this to thank. Zero Dark Thirty reopens raw wounds, and asks where we’ve been, where we’re headed, what was lost, and whether it was all worth it.

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Chastain stars as Maya, based on the CIA operative who spent a decade chasing a ghost with stubborn, dogged determination. The picture opens with a cacophonic choir of phone conversations taken from the World Trade Center on September 11, setting the stage – and, some would claim, justifying – the following harrowing sequence. A green Maya heads to an undisclosed black site where she meets the affable Dan (Jason Clarke), the CIA’s pre-eminent torturer of questionable individuals. We are challenged to find him endearing – and he is – even after witnessing him lead a naked, sleep-deprived subject around in a dog collar. The years pass, the War on Terror rages on, Dan quits the interrogation game, a President is replaced, and still Bin Laden evades capture. Maya hangs onto a single name once uttered in passing – Abu Ahmed – despite no other captive wanting to discuss this supposedly  “disappeared” entity, and her superiors not buying it as a viable lead. Her Sisyphean efforts to get the bureaucrats’ support leads to frustrating failures, and minor, temporary successes. Chastain’s character will no doubt be compared most to Claire Danes‘ Carrie from Homeland. However, where Danes gets to act out mental breakdowns and proclamations of love, Chastain is left only with her character’s unblinking professionalism and hard-nosed fervour. Even when derogatively referred to as ‘the girl’ by her colleagues, she doesn’t flinch. She’s got work to do.

Though Maya, and, to a lesser degree, Dan, are the central characters, there are plenty of others who help and hinder their epic quest over the two hour, forty minute running time. Jennifer Ehle, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Duplass, and Harold Perrineau are excellent as Maya’s colleagues, who share their theories and deploy their own techniques in the hunt for the terrorist leader. Kyle Chandler plays her boss, Mark Strong plays his boss, and James Gandolfini, as the CIA director, plays everyone’s boss (as it is in life). All involved have to push the boulder up that indomitable hill and convince the next most powerful person to trust their hunches (the Commander in Chief is absent save for an occasional appearance on a television screen in the background). Finally, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt lead the weirdly comic and frighteningly professional pack of Navy SEALs in the raid on what may or may not be Bin Laden’s compound (spoiler ale… never mind).

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From the right come allegations that the depiction of torture during interrogation has been invented by these pinko artists to embarrass the previous administration. Their argument doesn’t hold much weight. Those suggesting the feature makes a case for torture as a successful and ultimately moral interrogation tool must be immune to the startling punishment doled out by Dan (and in complete denial that the most pertinent piece of information is unearthed over a faux-friendly meal between captor and prisoner). If political columnists on the left are angry with the filmmakers for not coming out and explicitly decrying these methods, they’re failing to fulfil their end of the bargain as an audience member; not participating in, experiencing, and drawing their own conclusions from the images flickering on the screen. The torture sequences are contained in the first thirty minutes, and yes, perhaps if watched in isolation, they could be seen as ethically curious. Still, you don’t watch single scenes in isolation; you watch every scene, all of them intricately assembled into one almighty body. Even if a case isn’t overtly made against those very controversial techniques, the entire Government’s process – from torture to bureaucratic blockades – is quite clearly questioned. Zero Dark Thirty shouldn’t have to give us all the answers.

Bigelow and Boal have been asked to explain their political leanings, as well as answer accusations that they illegally gleaned classified information from CIA operatives, in the most unlikely of forums: on the red carpet, while canvassing Oscar votes (Hollywood is a strange place). They maintain their goal was to present the facts – as they discovered them – without comment. Their characters are hard-bitten, dispirited professionals; it makes no sense for them to constantly question their approach while trying to extract imperative information from a suspect. That implies Zero Dark Thirty is emotionally detached, and that Bigelow and Boal didn’t make creative filmic decisions to draw from us specific responses. Not true. To walk away with the reading that Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture would be to discount the disturbing first half hour, in which real, human beings – not faceless villains – are strung up nude, water-boarded, deafened by heavy metal, forced into a containment box, and most upsettingly, forced to walk around on their hands and knees with a collar around their neck. At one point, Maya says to her fellow agents “I know certainly freaks you out.” Zero Dark Thirty lives in the grey areas. We cheer when the hero from Taken shoots an innocent woman so her husband will lead him to his missing daughter. Here, it’s apparently abhorrent simply because it actually happened. Anyone upset that torture was employed in the first place should take it up with the torturers, not the artists forcing us to confront our cruel past.

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Like a great non-fiction novel, this gargantuanly ambitious endeavour delves into the minutiae of an investigation, sparing no detail and treating its viewer as if they’re smart enough to piece together this intricate puzzle too. There are times when the CIA has more intelligence than they know what to do with; what Nate Silver calls ‘noise’ occasionally obscures ‘the signal,’ with key pieces of info hidden like a very specific needles in a stack of similar looking needles. Other times, the trail grows cold. We’re happy to stick with Maya in these moments thanks to Boal’s astonishing screenplay, which develops this tremendous character whilst building a captivating mystery around her. Zero Dark Thirty is like a fantastic book, as well as a reminder of what films can do and books can’t. That comes in the stunning final sequence. Bigelow’s long been known as one of the best action directors in the business, and though she’s more recently proven her chops as a director of character drama, she reminds us just how damn good she is at quickening those pulses with the climactic raid sequence. She caps it all off with an unforgettable, quiet moment with our hero, Maya. What a movie.

5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Zero Dark Thirty arrives in Australian cinemas January 31, 2013.

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