I didn’t want to write about Zero Dark Thirty. Whilst I’m a modest admirer of Kathryn Bigelow’s previous work, the conversation surrounding it, even before it was released over here, was so contentious to me that I found it offputting. One camp says it’s pro-torture, the other says it’s anti-torture, Bigelow announces that it takes a neutral stance while Zizek calls it “Hollywood’s gift to American power”, to the point that opinions on all sides become so thorny that I had decided to just opt out and not worry about it. In the end, though, curiosity got the better of me, I decided to give it a go, and now I see why so many were compelled to have a point of view about it. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, reuniting after the relatively colossal success of The Hurt Locker, have made a film that is infuriatingly hard to pick apart, not due to its density but due to its elusiveness – this “neutral” approach taken is loaded and hard to unpick, at times seeming to justify ignorance of the underlying politics of its subject matter and other times feeling totally apathetic.
The problem is that Zero Dark Thirty is so opaque that it’s never clear where the Boal and Bigelow’s intentions end and the opinions and motivations of their characters begin. It’s no surprise that a film constructed from CIA and Navy SEAL reports and testimonials is almost completely devoid of the people of Pakistan, and one could read this as a comment on America’s superiority complex when it comes to the Middle-East, but it never makes this statement clearly enough, leaving us with the impression that Pakistan is a country solely populated by terrorists and CIA operatives. It never truly acknowledges that anyone other than white people were affected by terrorism – when depicting September 11 and the London bombings it does so with gut-wrenching archival footage, but the Islamabad Marriott Hotel Bombing is dramatized and its victims are Chastain’s Maya and a fellow CIA agent.
It’s not like any of this seems like a willful attempt to undermine the consequences of the War on Terror on the people of the Middle East – it feels more like the subject merely never entered the equation. Bigelow is principally interested in depicting the nuts and bolts of the operation to find bin Laden, how the CIA pieced together his whereabouts by drawing on their numerous resources, one of which just happened to be torture. The torture scenes which pepper the opening hour of the film are filmed with the same steely eye that us cast upon the offices and conference rooms later (nonetheless, torture is portrayed as suitably horrific and unreliable; the pro-torture accusations leveled against the film seem mostly to be a red herring), casting an cool, steely, almost uninterested eye on a world where the mission is all that matters, adopting the attitude of its characters without ever questioning it.
Which brings us to our protagonist. A codenamed, past-less, characterless cipher, Maya is nothing but the hunt for bin Laden personified. It’s a deliberate approach to the character that Jessica Chastain plays perfectly, beginning unsure of her footing and appalled at the torture she witnesses and ending as a woman relentlessly driven and completely consumed by the task at hand. Her ethereal visage in aviators set against the desert backdrop creates a satisfying cognitive dissonance, embodying traditionally masculine tropes in someone unquestionably feminine, and cuts an iconic figure. The scene in which she beats down a room full of men simply with the force of her convictions is thrilling, the scene in which she looks at home amongst a troop of Nacy SEALs even moreso. Many have criticised Maya’s lack of three dimensionality as a drag on the film, but to me her role as an unlikely icon for everything that the film is about is its most interesting facet.
Otherwise, the “neutrality” that Bigelow has spoken of works against the film. It is so concerned with its distanced, procedural approach to its subject matter that it perceives its subject matter with a curious blankness, failing to say anything meaningful beyond “this is what happened.” Only the raid on bin Laden’s home in the final half hour has any of the dynamism and insight of Bigelow’s previous work, and when you compare Zero Dark Thirty with her career defining The Hurt Locker, which managed to be a tense thriller, a probing investigation into the seductive nature of war AND a portray its Iraqi characters sympathetically and thoughtfully, then its hard to understand what went wrong. In the end, it seems like the debate surrounding the film has been so contentious because actively avoids making a clear statement. Bigelow has confused the words “neutral” and “apolitical”, and when a film about such intensely political subject matter refuses to engage with it as such, it ignores what makes it tick.