Movie review – Death pursues he who flees
Zero Dark Thirty explores the ethical, moral and high cost of war
Film: Zero Dark Thirty (UIP)
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Featuring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle and Reda Kateb
The words of Wilfred Owen’s famous World War poem, Dulce et Decorum est, ran through my mind as the credits began to roll. Written in 1917, the poem’s title translates as “It is sweet and right”.
The rest of the sentence in the poem reads “To die for one’s country”. Zero Dark Thirtyhas come under plenty of critical fire for authenticity and for linking torture with information gathering, but director Kathryn Bigelow brilliantly avoids equating war or victory with glory – or sweetness or right.
Jessica Chastain, who burst on to the big screen last year in the strangely compelling Take Shelter before earning her first Oscar nomination for The Help, will take the Oscar home this year. She is simply brilliant as Maya, the Central Intelligence Agency agent who makes it
her young life’s work to find Osama bin Laden and kill him.
Her character’s trajectory from new agent in the field to battle-hardened victor begs the question: what is the personal cost of doing your duty, even if you want to do it? It is the same question that all soldiers must answer. Maya might not wield a gun or sword, but she is at war nevertheless.
Bigelow opens her film with a black screen and the voices of victims of the 9/11 attacks. It is chilling because they are the voices of the dead. She then cuts to a detention centre. Here a man is bound while another, flanked by people in balaclavas, threatens to hurt him.
It’s horrible, but it’s not as horrible as watching the actual torture, which will turn your stomach.
Bigelow says of the filming experience: “As a human being, I wanted to cover my eyes, but as a film maker, I felt a responsibility to document and bear witness. I felt I had to overcome my discomfort for the sake of telling the story.”
While Maya is paying her personal toll for the work she does in the name of justice, America pays with its reputation and its internal perception that it is the bugle blower for freedom.
It’s a terrible thing for a nation that sells itself as the protector of freedom and the big brother of the world to be shown to have stooped to the worst practices of states it has labelled as “pariah” to get results.
While those of us who have been subjected to American imperialism in so many ways might not find Zero Dark Thirty’s less than flattering portrayal of that land problematic, spare a thought for her citizens who are confronted with the realities of their homeland’s policies in this film.
Bigelow’s film explores the high cost of war on many different levels, primarily the dehumanising effects of torture on both the victim and perpetrator.
She also manages to capture the chaos of the intelligence and military communities in the wake of 9/11, and then as she gets stuck into Maya’s story, she draws all that noise into one channel as Maya focuses on her golden thread, the one that leads to Bin Laden.
She also hints at the political cost of war with the high-level hot potato throwing that goes on in the corridors of power.
It is the ethical and moral cost of war that gets the most screen time though, the detainees held in cages like animals and their interrogators who become savage.
Jason Clarke as Dan the interrogator is quite brilliant in the way he transforms himself from a savage torturer into a neat-haired Washington, DC, suit. This transformation more than anything else in the film sends the message that those who commit acts of terror are people too – that’s what makes a solution so hard to come by.
As a woman, there is another angle to this story – the casual sexism towards Maya, even by those who trust her to complete the job. She is described twice as “the girl” by bigwigs in the corridors of power. I am sure this ingrained sexism is authentic.
Zero Dark Thirty is written by Mark Boal, who also penned Bigelow’s last Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker. He too has come under fire. Judged on its merits as a film, it is a superbly made one that shows off a director-writer duo at the pinnacle of their powers.
» Zero Dark Thirty opens on Friday.