Mr East Goes To The Movies: Zero Dark Thirty

by George_East on April 25, 2013

So, I am still miles behind in my reviews of the films I have seen this year, and the long promised re-launch of the Cine-East Film Club is still, no doubt, hotly awaited (it is coming film fans, I promise you) but I find myself with a little time on my hands, and find myself thinking about the third of the three big Oscary films released at the beginning of the year:  Katherine Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty.  The film tells the ‘true story’ of the CIA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden in the decade after the events of 11 September 2001.

Of those three big oscary films (the other being Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained),  Zero Dark Thirty manages to be both the most conventional and the most controversial.   Although one would always expect a Spielberg film to be an object lesson in play-it-by numbers Hollywood emotional manipulation, Lincoln was as I wrote in my review, actually a film focusing on the very unHollywood subject of political process, rather than political idealism.    The Tarantino, as is his want, was a sometimes successful mash up of genres (western meets blaxsploitation meets smart arse talky indie).   

Zero Dark Thirty on the other hands plays as a pretty standard historical political thriller.  There is investigation, there is jeopardy, there are deaths of minor characters close to the lead and there is successful resolution. 

However, given that the subject matter is the events leading up to the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011, this is very recent history indeed.  Once you factor in the time the film took to make, much of it must have been conceived and shot within a year of the events it portrays.  This very much does not allow for distance or reflection – if, say, we look at the American experience in Vietnam, it would take until The Deer Hunter in 1978 and Apocalypse Now in 1979 before Hollywood would seek to deal intelligently with those experiences.  Similarly, one of the finest films so far about the American experience in Iraq, was Bigelow’s own The Hurt Locker which was not made until 2008.

The consequence of this is that the film feels in many ways like a justification for American post-9/11 foreign policy.  Iraq is not seen at all.  Afghanistan is only shown as the site for the death of once of the CIA operatives, who walks into a car bomb trap at an American base in that country, when she thinks she is to liaise with one of Bin Laden’s associates to get information about his whereabouts.  Moreover, the Islamist bombings of the period are shown – the attack in Saudi Arabia, the London bombings – with a particularly horrific recreation of the bus bomb at Tavistock Square from 7 July 2005.   This is history without nuance. 

Most controversially of all though Zero Dark Thirty shows that the black sites, rendition and torture policies implemented by the Bush Administration in the period after 9/11 as being instrumental in leading the CIA to Bin Laden’s location, albeit some 7 years after the policies ceased.  This is apparently utterly false – no useful information came from the torture programme.  There is a real risk here that by showing the policy as effective (albeit also shown in some detail to be extraordinarily cruel), the darkest hour of American foreign policy since Vietnam  is being excused.

Against these dubious politics though, the film is an impressively and intelligently  tense study of the programme to get Bin Laden.  The CIA operatives involved, and in particular, the lead operative, Maya (Jessica Chastain) are shown as unhealthily obsessive – unable to form relationships, unable even to have friends.    There is always a difficulty with historical films that the tension cannot be sustained because, after all, the outcome is known (one of the outrageous delights of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, for example is his willingness to defy history and have Hitler assassinated at the end in the cinema bombing).    However, the film successfully rachets up  the tension by focusing on the risk to the American operatives living and working in Pakistan and other parts of the Islamic world.  A restaurant in which ex pats are eating which is the subject of a bomb attack, the car carrying CIA operatives being trapped in a narrow alleyway between motorcyclists and a car behind.  

As well as these tense scenes in narrow urban Pakistani streets, there is the politics of the CIA and the administration.  It is an administration that has got bored of the failure to find Bin Laden and wants to move on to other things.   Maya is left having to sell the mission to the higher ups even once they are pretty certain from the intelligence they have that it must be Osama Bin Laden in the compound in Abbottabad.         There is a fantastic scene in which she confronts the director of the CIA played by James Gandolfini with the kind of plain speaking that he needs to hear to be confident in the mission. 

The last half hour or so of the film is taken up with the mission itself, shown through night glasses in green silhouetted images and real time.    This is a bunch of highly trained professionals who have been employed to do a job, and that is what they are going to do. The significance of the mission to the men on it, is not referred to – there is no corny man on the mission who lost a loved one in 9/11 or discussion about history or infamy or the rest. 

Bigelow is, in many ways, a fascinating director.  Working, as she does, within the Hollywood mainstream her films are quintessentially male (even if the lead in Zero Dark Thirty is female).    She is a director of action and contemporary war, just as in the past with films like Point Break she made male buddy movies.  

Her loneliness in a male world is reflected in the great final scene of the film.  As the mission is complete and Maya heads back to the United States, she is ushered into the back of the plane and told that she can sit anywhere.  She is the only passenger.  She has achieved what she has spent 10 years seeking to achieve but she is now alone.   Going back to nothing.    Was it worth it?  Or maybe were the CIA political types right all along.  Stuff had moved on.  Bin Laden was no longer relevant.   Maya has wasted her life obsessing about something which could not give it meaning. 


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jackie South April 25, 2013 at 7:45 pm

Good post on a great film. The only real flaw with it was length, something it has in common with both Django Unchained and, even more so, Lincoln.

I thought the ending was more about an ultra-focused and determined person, madly-driven to utter obsession for ten solid years, achieving her goal and being left with no sense of purpose as a result. The emptiness of archieving an all-devouring obsessive ambition.


George_East April 25, 2013 at 10:43 pm

Interesting take. I think that the last scene elevates the film to art. It is though deeply problematic.


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