15-21 February 2013 #643

Zero Dark Thirty

A controversial film about the ten year long search for Osama bin Laden after the 11 September 2001
Sophia Pande

Kathryn Bigelow has created a world of controversy with her most recent film, Zero Dark Thirty. Previously the first woman ever to win the Best Director category at the Academy Awards in 2009 for her tremendously intense film The Hurt Locker, Bigelow beat her former husband James Cameron that year for Avatar, with herself and her film winning over Cameron and his wondrous science fiction epic in both Best Director and Best Picture categories. It is impossible to overstate the kind importance and credibility that this win can give to a director.

With Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow has taken her biggest risk yet. This finely crafted film is about the 10 year long search for Osama bin Laden after the horrific events of 11 September 2001.

Opening with the title: ‘based on firsthand accounts of actual events’, the film launches into the now infamous torture scenes where a man, Ammar (Reda Kateb), suspected of having links to bin Laden is routinely tortured via either water-boarding or other so called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (this is the official nomenclature of the CIA for what anyone else would call torture).

Conducting the torture is a CIA officer called Dan (Jason Clarke). As witness is the initially horrified Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA officer who has just been posted to Pakistan, the hub of suspected terrorist activity at the time.

What Zero Dark Thirty does as a film is to lay out in cinematic form an intricate procedural method, in other words, it portrays a series of connecting events, people, and information that eventually lead to the Navy Seal assault on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan resulting in the killing of Osama bin Laden on 2 May, 2011.

There are many troubling aspects to this very fine, very watchable film. Already, the word ‘watchable’ is problematic when addressing the manhunt for a terrorist that undeniably changed the face of global terrorism. One cannot help but feel a certain disdain at the inevitable relief that most viewers (myself included) experience when the man is finally shot by a Navy Seal in a finely choreographed set piece where we see the re-created operation through the green night vision goggles of the activated Seals.

There is also, of course, the mixed response from people to the claim that the film accurately portrays firsthand accounts. Bigelow and Mark Boal (the writer) have since admitted that they have taken a certain measure of creative licence in order to craft an engaging film. This, in itself, would have been acceptable had they omitted the opening words which cause people to believe that they are indeed watching a version of reality.

Perhaps what has troubled me the most while watching this film, and also afterwards, is that all the main characters are absurdly good looking (Chastain, Clark, and the luminous Jennifer Ehle all play key CIA officers), and therefore, we, as viewers are already much more sympathetic to them, even during the torture scenes. This is the most classic kind of manipulation of the viewer, a choice that every intelligent director makes knowingly.

The film is amazing, watch it, and think about its impact and related controversies. Meanwhile, I will mull over whether I can forgive Bigelow (a director I greatly admire) for persuading me to root unabashedly for a committed band of CIA agents hell-bent on killing a terrorist.

Zero Dark Thirty trailer, a film directed by Kathryn Bigelow