Sunday 20 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (2013) - Kathryn Bigelow

It's the scenes of torture that have caused the most controversy in Kathryn Bigelow's latest 9/11 cinematic venture.  Part-way through Zero Dark Thirty we see a clip of President Obama claiming that "America doesn't torture".  This may be a fictional account of the search for Osama Bin Laden, but Bigelow would beg to differ.

The torturing of a captive sets the film in motion, yet much of the violence is implied.  It's cold, business-like, a means to an end.  Juxtaposed with massacre and suicide bombing, it shows both sides in stalemate.  America might be fighting against terrorism, but are their methods justified?  It's also important to note that torture does not lead to information - it's only through lying to the captive that any leads are uncovered.

What follows is the story of Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her hunt for Bin Laden, which takes the form of an episodic detective story.  This is not the intense, visceral, front-line experience of Bigelow's Oscar winning The Hurt Locker.  Instead, this is a slow-burning film where much of the action takes place at desks and on computer screens.  Chastain offers a remarkable performance.  Maya begins as a naive young woman, new to the CIA and far from complicit in the torture methods she witnesses.  Over the course of the narrative, she grows into a strong-willed and determined woman, making her mark in a patriarchal world, with one thing on her mind - whatever the cost.

The drama may plod at times, but it's always gripping despite us knowing the ending already.  The film's climax sees Bigelow in typical realistic mode, masterfully ramping up the tension.  The siege on Bin Laden's compound is filmed predominantly in the cold, eerily soft glow of night vision - reminiscent of Call of Duty.  There's little glory to be found.  The focus is not on the success of the mission, but the innocent children caught in the clash, the pool of blood left behind by the body.  Does Maya shed tears of relief, or tears for the lives lost in the process on both sides?  It's a poignant ending that forces us to question: was it all worth it?

Where The Hurt Locker is a harrowing piece of cinema, Zero Dark Thirty is powerful for its thought-provoking and political agenda.  With both films, Bigelow has proven herself to be the foremost filmmaker on the most important event in modern history.