September 11th was a clear blue day, but Zero Dark Thirty’s opening scene is pitch black. We hear a static mesh of desperate voices trying to ascertain what had just hit them; the very un-fictionalised, inartistic sound of a country in total panic, revulsion and fear.
Those sounds pierce throughout Kathryn Bigelow’s complex, muscular new film, which covers the decade-long hunt to bring justice – or martyrdom – to Osama bin Laden. Before and even as he is found, those questions remain as clear and intense; who attacked us, and why? Will they do it again, and how should we best respond?
We’re next taken to a CIA black zone. Armed, hooded figures hoist an Arabic man in the air and ask him for information, before convincing him he is about to drown. When a hood is removed, we don’t encounter a grunt, but flame-haired, porcelain-delicate CIA-operative Maya (Jessica Chastain). Half naked, freshly water-boarded but still unbroken, the detainee appeals to her for help. “You can help yourself by being truthful,” she responds, as if his fate were still in his hands.
Don’t be deceived by her looks. Maya’s an obsessive and insubordinate, part anti-hero, part femme-fatale – a noir dream. A field operative who looks into the eye of a defeated enemy before torturing him to gain information she knows will be tainted, but who pieces every tiny source together, who eventually finds bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and who forces the issue of military force in the face of laborious politicking.
This film opens in the throes of controversy – and the charge it endorses torture. But those looking for a smoking gun won’t find one; there isn’t a single, explicit moment that claims the ‘enhanced interrogation’ of captured terrorists yielded actionable intelligence. These scenes are filmed with a brutal intimacy – the look of a still unbroken detainee moments before he’s locked in a wooden coffin with only his body for company – but, equally, information forced from abused men is not dismissed as useless, merely dark parts of a massive, multi-dimensional jigsaw Maya and her colleagues piece together year on year. This is a hard truth that cannot be airbrushed out of the story. Would its critics rather the film pretended torture never took place?
But maybe we shouldn’t be looking for a smoking gun. This film – all films – work like a kaleidoscope of carefully crafted impressions and tones. Beyond the poise and excitement and suspense – of which there is plenty – Bigelow has layered fragments of truth with elements of genre, fusing the real with the dramatic. It is here the film threatens to condemn itself. The actual, exhaustive search for bin Laden was anything but high-octane, but the demands of the box office ensure we consider the thrill and the violence over the long, life-sapping mundanity of the chase.
Is there a strategy or agenda that progresses beyond the abstractions of art? Are we being deceived? I don’t think so. But what is clear is the scars remain hot and angry, and the movie uses that heat to ratchet up its emotional excitement. There’s a perversity here that is perhaps inevitable, maybe necessary. If this film proves a single thing, it is that revenge is best served cold.
Zero Dark Thirty is in cinemas on Friday.
Text: Tom Seymour