Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty is a long, detailed and convincing account of the CIA’s decade long search for the al-Qaida figurehead Osama Bin Laden. The film has apparently been in development for some time, and its original point was to show the frustration that the continued elusiveness of this legendary bogeyman was causing in the most powerful intelligence organisation in the world – the dramatic events of May 1 2011, when a squad of crack troops descended on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, forced the film-makers to radically re-think the climax of the movie.
As presented in Bigelow’s film the driving force behind the eventual slaying of Bin Laden is agency operative Maya, who latches onto a possible lead as to where the main man is hiding early on and refuses to let it go. Her information comes out of a series of gruelling interrogations of prisoners suspected of having involvement with the 9/11 attacks: these sessions are depicted starkly enough to make a liberal audience wince but with just enough editing to avoid accusations of gratuitous bad taste. Maya develops her case as and when she can over the next ten years despite the flimsiness of the available evidence and the cynicism of her bosses to the point where she’s got the confidence to insist on action, but even on the night of the raid the potential for a humiliating disaster is great.
Zero Dark Thirty is entirely focussed on the procedural rather than the political aspects of its situation, and that’s just fine, given how much care, research and skill has gone into it. It’s in the fine tradition of intelligent movies like Zodiac or The Insider, in that one’s attention is held as much by the way the protagonists find their way through a maze of false leads, information overload and obstructive behaviour from people ostensibly on their own side as it is by the actual subject matter. Everything here rings true: locations, jargon, communication systems, and importantly performances, with Jessica Chastain ably wrung out and nervily intense as Maya. The movie doesn’t even get derailed when Tony Soprano turns up as the head of the CIA, with Torchwood‘s Captain Jack Harkness as one of his sidekicks. Every so often the many scenes of people in offices and desert camps getting raddled about lack of progress are disrupted by outbursts of shocking, unheralded violence: suicide bombs, assassination attempts. The big pay-off for all the to-ing and fro-ing is the last half hour, which is the raid on Bin Laden’s house, observed in minute and nerve-jangling detail – it’s practically a movie on its own, with the stalking about of the heavily tooled up troops weirdly reminiscent to me of sections of Aliens*.
What the film isn’t interested in is politics, or the wider framework into which its narrative fits. The brutal interrogations are implied as absolutely necessary to secure information, and when President Obama is seen on a TV pledging to halt the practice of torture he becomes just another obstacle. You don’t get any insight into what motivates the terrorists, and hardly any mention of the American invasion of Iraq, which some people might say didn’t do much to soothe their grievances. This is a story told from one side, and just a narrow point of view of that side – fine as far as it goes, but it would be interesting to see the opposing view articulated for the sake of balance.
* which I’ve just realised was directed by Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron.