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Zero Dark Thirty –
Everyone is aware that Osama bin Laden is dead, and the key events that led to his death are likewise widely known. It therefore requires a certain degree of bravery to sell Zero Dark Thirty as a thriller despite the fascination with this most zero and dark of deaths. The moment half past midnight when bin Laden was killed is referenced in the title in spy jargon.
Jessica Chastain the omnipresent new star who currently rules the American acting landscape stars in the movie. One might even contend that Jessica Chastain’s character and the movie are intertwined. She portrays Maya a lone CIA agent who is adamant that bin Laden is not crouching over a kidney dialysis equipment in an Afghan cave. The fact that the terrorist’s hiding place was a sizable, walled compound in Abbottabad Pakistan and that it was somewhat well known being near a Pakistan military institution at least shocked everyone when he was eventually found and killed.
The majority of the movie centres on the allied side’s hunt which includes following up on leads that many Americans thought were too obvious and in plain sight to be credible. To Maya however, that is the entire allure of bin Laden’s plan it is prudent to hide something in plain sight as in Poe’s “The Purloined Letter“.
Zero Dark Thirty
It makes sense to hide something from view and acting on it requires creativity she must support her hunch with the urge to think it is reasonable. Here’s where traditional espionage techniques clash with a speedier more intuitive strategy employing an intuition that seems too good to be true.
The conflict between the Maya faction and the Maya sceptics occupies the majority of the first two hours of the movie and the decision to fire the gun has extremely high stakes. Think about the humiliation President Barack Obama and his advisors would feel if it came out that they had been embarrassingly, publically and sensationally wrong. You can’t send in the Navy SEALs to raid a sizable compound on the territory of a country that is, at least nominally an ally. The administration’s later portrayal of those pivotal moments and the possibility that it was mistaken is incredibly persuasive. The subtext about a conflict between macho males who delight in torture and hard boiled guts and a woman who relies more on her intelligence and imagination deserves a movie of its own. The film’s leading men follow the well loved formula of a skilled team utilising cutting edge technology in the opening scene. Maya, on the other hand is more like the obedient female lead of one of those thrillers based in corporate finance and big business, who employs no privileged intelligence but is willing to defy the conventions that have been followed by males for a long time.
Chastain once again demonstrates her versatility as a performer as Maya. Who else outside Meryl Streep has exhibited such a breadth and capacity for persuasion in recent films? The Oscar winning screen writer of Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker Mark Boal deserves praise for starting with facts rather than a formula that can be readily transformed into traditional forms of fiction. I believe that a significant portion of his and Bigelow’s initial planning for this movie happened before it became clear in those murky regions where such things exist that the movie’s conclusion would not go exactly as everyone had hoped. The initial parts of the movie are not very well made. They are hazy and heavy on theory, loaded with jargon and difficult math. The attack itself is the portion that everyone now wants to watch. Here, the movie employs the contemporary technique of underlit Shaky Cam with difficult to understand language and rapid action in shadows and confusion. Although it’s all really well made and we do finally get to see some of what must have transpired including a glimpse of bin Laden’s face and the minutes leading up to his demise to borrow the MGM catchphrase, That’s not entertainment.
Because of the way the movie opens, it is illogical for the raid to be well-lit and staged and it is also illogical for bin Laden and the other people living in his complex to be portrayed based on our understanding of his motivations and personality. The Zero Dark Thirty raid is a stroke of luck rather than the culmination of events that have been building on screen. I’m speculating that this movie’s fascination stems in large part from the revelation of obscured facts. There isn’t much of a plot essentially Maya believes she is correct and she is the fact that Bigelow has established herself as a contemporary director’s role model may be the reason why this movie is receiving even higher appreciation than her Oscar-winning masterpiece the Hurt Locker.
That movie had a strong foundation in plot, character, and actors whose goals and personalities were well known to the viewer. The acting is restrained, the timing is impeccable and the performances are incredibly sharp and detailed. Depending on Maya’s sources of inspiration Zero Dark Thirty is a slam bang action film. The fact that Maya was right about the long, steady build-up robbing the climax of much of its punch and giving largely irony may be one issue. Do we want to learn more about Osama bin Laden al Qaeda their background and the political resentments they represent? Yes but the reality was different.