Saturday 13 April 2019

From the archive: "Zero Dark Thirty"

The official Bin Laden movie arrives laden with controversy. Accusations persist that Kathryn Bigelow has, in obtaining access to classified documents, compromised the filmmaker’s ethical code; worse yet, that she’s effectively pledged her troth to Jack Bauer, and become a flagwaver for state-sanctioned torture. Can it be true? Could the director who displayed a rigorous critical intelligence in such pre-Oscar titles as 1995’s Strange Days really have started plastering up officially licensed images with the indiscriminate fervour of a teenage One Direction fan covering her bedroom with posters of Harry Styles?

It’s a droll irony, then, that Zero Dark Thirty should open with a blank screen. We see nothing, instead listening to various audio recordings collated on the morning of September 11, 2001 – terse check-ins from air traffic control, desperate calls home from those trapped in the Twin Towers – which speak more potently (and more emotively) than any tired newsreel now would. The darkness we’re plunged into may be most crucial to our understanding of Bigelow’s film: early notice we can read whatever we like into what follows.

Cut to: Islamabad, 2003. A CIA agent (Jason Clarke) is overseeing an interrogation – involving waterboarding and various other forms of torture – that will yield scraps of information pertaining to the suspect known internally as “Usama”. Now we hear the buzz and crackle of authentic-sounding terminology (“the KSM network”, “ISI”) whose precise significance writer Mark Boal trusts us to figure out for ourselves. One helpful analyst is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a fiery addition to the line of Bigelow’s previous heroines, presented as some way smarter – or more intuitive – than the men around her: what she will observe, over the next decade, is a steady stream of intelligence gains and losses.

The film’s political stance – to these eyes, broadly neutral, and as stand-offish as The Hurt Locker was before it – may provide less of an issue than its procedural form, which automatically insists everything that happens in scenes one and two (9/11; the torture of an Al-Qaeda operative) leads somehow to scene 220 (the death of Osama Bin Laden at the hands of U.S. marines). In fact, as last week’s tragic events in Algeria suggest, this is active history, the facts of which have yet to settle fully. TV hits like 24 and Homeland have on some level understood this, and enjoyed bending these facts into various provisional, pre-emptive shapes; Zero Dark Thirty, by contrast, is presented with a steely seriousness that suggests this one’s very much for the record.

And yet, even on an initial viewing, those of us with relatively low-level intelligence clearance can spot there are problems within the film itself. The opening hour-and-a-half’s not-so-potted backstory includes a distinctly cursory recreation of the July 2005 bombings in London (one bomb, on a bus carrying the wrong number and no advertising) that, within the film’s syntax, serves a similar purpose to those punctuating single-shots of global landmarks being blown away in Michael Bay movies. Back at base, meanwhile, strawberry-blonde shortcake Chastain appears at all points just too dang sweet for the task she’s undertaking, having to fall back on some very Bigelovian signifiers (bad-ass Aviator shades, a trouser suit, one pointed instance of cursing) to try and persuade us she can mix it with the Agency’s big boys.

The film’s strength is its big-picture thinking. ZDT is good on the grimness of the past decade’s geopolitical landscape, evoking a strong sense of one atrocity following hard on the heels of another, and only being compounded by haphazard and ham-fisted official responses. Maya can’t even go out to dinner without a bomb going off in the restaurant, which is perhaps why Boal denies his characters any life beyond their day jobs; their security can just about be guaranteed within compounds. Bin Laden’s death is presented as the end result of a process of entrenchment that turned the U.S. into a wounded animal, viciously fighting its corner. “I want targets… bring me people to kill!,” demands Mark Strong’s Agency chief; clearly, people were killed, but recent news suggests any victory may have been more symbolic than lasting.

Accordingly, ZDT comes in only just behind Amour as the 2012-13 award season’s grimmest film: staffed by bureaucrats and functionaries, largely bereft of humour, somewhat like parsing several thousand words of porridgey Washington Post prose to get to the one or two paras that might stir the blood or chill the marrow. It’s undeniably a masterclass in movie logistics – admirably smart in its setting out of corridors, networks and systems – and is being recognised as such. Yet for all the ambition Bigelow displays here, I spent a good part of the running time wondering whether both she and we alike would be better off revisiting Point Break. You get fewer arguments – and generally more fun – with Keanu.

(MovieMail, January 2013)

Zero Dark Thirty screens on ITV tonight at 10.35pm.

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