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Film Review – Zero Dark Thirty

Venue: Cine 3, Ster Kinekor
               Maerua Mall
Film: Zero Dark Thirty
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Screenplay:  Mark Boal
Players: Jason Clarke; Joel Edgerton; Jenifer Ehle; ark Strong; Kyle Chandler; James Gandolfini
Genre: war drama; thriller
Rating: ****

Award-winning director Bigelow and screenplay-writer Mark Boal have combined again in this memorable but controversial film. As a director, Bigelow can create a man’s film more powerful than those of many male directors; as a writer and former war journalist, Boal brings a gritty realism to the story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, despite the fact that there is considerable controversy about the film’s historical accuracy.
The film details the deployment of intelligence and military special operatives whose sole goal was to track and capture bin Laden, in the wake of the psychological and emotional crisis which gripped the United States after 9/11. Initially, the film devotes a disproportionately long series of sequences to the torture methods which were employed to gain information from detainees: this was euphemistically referred to as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. The film does not pass judgement on such torture methods as waterboarding or sleep deprivation, or leaving detainees to hang suspended in chains, or alternatively squashed into a wooden crate which would prove crowded for a Pekinese or a Persian cat. It is more difficult to assess the success of such methods: eventually torture victims did invariably crack but the information which was literally spat out at their torturers was not always be reliable.
Dan (Clarke) is a seasoned interrogator whose soul and sensitivity are bludgeoned to near-death by his experiences at the ‘black sites’, or torture centres, at strategic points in the Middle East and Pakistan. He tells his victims coolly and dispassionately, ’When you lie, I hurt you’ and then proceeds to offer them a choice of torture methods. The most exquisite pain may not be enough, however, to counteract the zeal of those who are impassioned and encouraged by bin Laden:’ Continue the Jihad; the work will go on for 100 years.’
The use of torture may be contentious and only an American film would have the courage to show the shadowy and morally-ambiguous nature of war. American war films are often cause for self-reflection rather than gung-ho propaganda to pump up political pomposity or international status of a country.
Enter the heroine, Maya (Chastain), a CIA operative on her first assignment who is preceded by the reputation that she’s ‘ a killer’. Stationed in Islamabad, Pakistan, initially, she moves around the global black sites, interrogating detainees with mixed success. The enhanced interrogation techniques appear to produce fragments of intelligence and a covey of approximately 100 known Al Quaeda operatives, virtually none of whom seem sufficiently highly-placed to lead them to Bin Laden.
After a car bomb, driven by a suicide bomber, explodes at Camp Chapman in Afghanistan, killing Jessica, who has arranged a meeting with an alleged mole from Kuwait, Maya makes Bin Laden her special mission. Her quiet dedication, expressed quite simply as ‘…Then I’m going to kill Bin Laden,’ contrasts starkly with the bluster and bullying of a politician who shouts, ’I want targets. Do your f–ing jobs. Bring me people to kill!’
One character comments ‘Two big breaks – and little people make them happen.’ This is an important message in the film, actually. It is a tribute to the people like Maya, Dan, and Jessica, who sacrifice a sense of honour, self-respect and a normal social life on the altar of patriotism and duty, however distasteful this may be.
The ‘black op’ to capture Bin Laden is rendered in loving detail: the Shaky Cam and night vision goggles transform the viewer into a Navy SEAL along for the ride. Despite the crashing helicopter, the military operation seemed remarkably controlled. Bin Laden appeared elusive to the end. The operation gets the green light on the strength of a 60% certainty and Maya’s intuition. The lengths to which the CIA tried to obtain proof are itemised: obtaining DNA from garbage (but the compound burned it); a sham polio vaccine programme; even attempts to use the sanitation system. Aerial photography identified movement rather than people.
There have been accusations that Bigelow and Boal somehow gained access to classified material to make this film. Whether they did or not, Zero Dark Thirty is gritty, gripping, and powerful, as the film propels the viewer towards a conclusion he knows in advance. The title refers to ‘trade talk’ for 24h30, the time at which Bin Laden was killed. The film shows, with gripping clarity, the seamy underside of war, in which there are no heroes but only victims – on both sides.

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