' Cinema Romantico: Zero Dark Thirty

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

“What else have you worked on besides bin Laden?”

“Nothing. I’ve worked on nothing else.” 

The first time we truly get a good look at Maya (Jessica Chastain) is in an interrogation room where an al-Queda operative named Anmar (Reda Kateb) is strung up and sadistically water boarded by burly C.I.A. officer Dan (Jason Clarke). But many of these shots are struck in a wide frame so that we can see Maya to the left, standing on the sides of her feet, arms crossed in such a way to suggest she is trying to huddle with herself, generally evoking someone out of her element, fearful and leery of the tactics on display. When we return to the same room and same prisoner later there is a brief moment when Maya is left alone with the prisoner. He senses, as we sense, her wariness. He pleads for help. She replies: “You can help yourself by being truthful.” Woah. She is not quite who we thought she was.


"Zero Dark Thirty", a joint effort by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter (war corespondent) Mark Boal, is a re-telling of America’s attempt in the wake of September 11th to find and kill the man responsible, al-Queda king Osama bin Laden. It stretches across years, chock full of names and dates and places, stops, starts and dead ends. The real deed took, as acting director of the C.I.A. Michael Morell has noted, “the selfless commitment of hundreds of officers.” Bigelow and Boal, however, choose, correctly, to make Maya our one surrogate, our entry point, a character that does not necessarily come manufactured as imposingly heroic and slogan-barking but frightened, suspicious and, ultimately obsessive. 

The much-debated torture scenes in the film are explicit and treading murky, inflammatory ground. It is not outright propaganda but nor does it deny, and in one sequence we watch characters watching President Obama on "60 Minutes" claiming torture was not used in locating bin Laden. The most significant bit here is the characters’ reaction – that is, they have none, as if it is business as usual, as if the President is merely reciting the company line. That is a fairly strong statement. And if this is a political film, and that can certainly be argued, well, this is the film drawing a line in the sand and taking a side, and what are politics if they are not drawing lines in the sand and taking sides?

Does it argue that torture was instrumental in the capture and killing? It does, yes, in that the most crucial clue is revealed by Anmar. And though he reveals it in a moment of water boarding reprieve, of being afforded food and water, it is quite clear that torture laid the groundwork for this revelation. At the same time, the clue is specifically called “a needle in a haystack”, underscoring the notion that clues – strong or weak – were gathered from an assortment of places and that wherever they came from, however they were obtained, it was going to take a person or people to latch onto one and have the faith (compulsion) to see it through.

The clue is a name. Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. A false name, as it turns out, but a false name that could lead to a real name. He becomes, in a sense, the Sean Regan of "Zero Dark Thirty", the (mostly) unseen focus of attention, the piece of intel to which Maya clings with fervor, the name she will track to the ends of the earth, convinced to her core that whoever he is will unlock the gate, figurative or otherwise, to bin Laden’s hiding place.

When a few of her colleagues are killed in the tragic attack at Camp Chapman in 2009 she tells another character: “I’ve lost a lot of my friends. I believe I was spared to finish the job.” We know bin Laden will be found and killed, of course, and he is in an elongated sequence that in spite of our awareness of its conclusion will still you breathless. Yet, in a strange way, if the film has a storytelling flaw it is that for this chunk of running time, Maya, to whom and to whose quest we have become so attached, is effectively sidelined. 


More telling is the build-up to the “jackpot”, the way in which the infamous walled-off compound at Abbottabad is discovered and how colleagues, be it C.I.A. or Presidential advisers, waffle in their desire to move on the location without definitive knowledge that the desired target is inside. Maya is definite. She knows. SHE.KNOWS. Everyone goes around an obligatory conference table reciting in percentages their confidence level. They are moderate to less than confident. Then Maya declares: ”One hundred percent.” She quickly amends it to “ninety-five percent. Because I know how people feel about certainty in here.”

Throughout the film we never see Maya off location. She is always at the job, tucked away at some computer with some stack of files, questioning some detainee. She counts off the days since the compound’s discovery with no action by scribbling the number with a magic marker on her boss’s office window. So often “possessed” characters in movies are given requisite home front scenes in which they are glimpsed ignoring spouses and forgetting children’s birthdays. Maya does not even have THAT. A female colleague wonders if she has at least hooked up with another guy on base. Ha! Maya taking time away from the job to hook up? Please! 

Bin Laden and his operatives, for all the atrocious harm they committed across the globe, had an unshakable, if misguided, belief in what they were doing. They were zealots. So is Maya. It takes one to catch one. And in the last stunning shot a single tear is shed. You could read this as relief. Re-consider it, and then consider what Maya is going to do whenever she gets where she is going. “Nothing. I’ve worked on nothing else.”

Often great movies do not reveal themselves in full until the final second and that is "Zero Dark Thirty’s" intention all along – it belongs to Jessica Chastain, and in that instant she cracks the entire movie wide open.

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