KATHRYN BIGELOW’S “ZERO Dark Thirty” is certainly a well-made, grippingly exciting movie. It tells the story of the search for and assassination of Osama Bin Laden, dramatized through the doggedness of CIA operative Maya (a convincingly good Jessica Chastain).
Bigelow is a master of detail. I have no idea what a rendition site looks like, or for that matter the Islamabad Marriott Hotel or Abbottabad and various other cities in Pakistan. But Ms. Bigelow certainly creates enough ‘texture’ to place us there (as she did so admirably well in “The Hurt Locker”), in the dust and the crowds and the danger. She does away with any kind of back-story to her central (and pretty much only) character, Maya. We are with Maya as she battles through bureaucracy, gets shot at and blown up and steels herself to waterboarding and various forms of torture, all in the drive to ‘get her man’.
This is essentially a well-told detective story. Starting with a nugget of information gleaned through torture, Maya follows the trail of one Abu Ahmed, Bin Laden’s personal courier. It is a trail that leads them to a fortress-like compound, where she deduces -without any tangible evidence- that UBL (as he’s referred to in the story) lives. And then, in almost real time, Bigelow makes us a part of the Seal team that storms the compound. It is heart-stopping film-making that’s as good as it gets.
What a pity then that this is such a profoundly amoral film.
Bigelow, in various interviews, has sought to create the fiction that her movie was a dispassionate dramatization of reality, unshaded by any political agenda. The actual movie does not support this assertion.
The assassination of UBL is essentially very dodgy business, and one that the West has nodded affirmatively to in a feeling of mass catharsis and the presumed belief that by killing him, we were all buying a measure of safety for ourselves. It’s this narrative that has allowed us to ignore the inconvenient fact that, yet again, we invaded another country and, the means being justified by the ends, murdered someone.
“Zero Dark Thirty” begins with the lie that torture actually produced the scrap of information that helped find UBL. Throughout we see the CIA Agents fretting about new congressional oversight that, post Abu Graib, now frowns on torture…simply making it more difficult to do their jobs. The movie does not editorialize on this; it simply presents it as a reality.
As the assault on UBL’s house is taking place, throngs of curious neighbours begin to walk toward the compound – they’re ordered to stay back or be shot, as no doubt they would have been, had they continued…just so much collateral damage. At least they’d have been shot by ‘real’ people and not drones.
So you wonder, where is the artistic conscience in all this? If art is to have any value, it is to serve as some sort of conscience, provide some sort of moral true north in a world of unprincipled, essentially corrupt governance. It’s simply not good enough for artists of the stature – and talent – of Bigelow to opt for the cop out of being merely an observing eye.
At no time does the film – Bigelow – stand back and question the morality of what’s happening.
At no time does it occur to anyone that the UBL’s of the world aren’t the cause of potential danger to the West, it’s this kind of contemptuous amorality toward torture as an instrument of war, the bland acceptance of collateral damage and this indifference to sovereign territory, that perhaps, maybe, be a catalyst to this on-going Jihad.