Zero Dark Thirty: the search for Mr Wrong

A demented love story with bullets instead of kisses.

Zero Dark Thirty (15)
dir: Kathryn Bigelow

The relationship in Kathryn Bigelow’s films between adversaries on opposite sides of the law is never far from courtship: these are essentially love stories with punches and bullets in place of kisses and Black Magic. The female cop who acquires a stalker in Blue Steel and the eager-beaver lawman falling under the spell of a bank robber in Point Break are both drawn into scenarios that have elements of intimacy.

Zero Dark Thirty continues in this tradition. Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a rookie CIA agent whose hunt for her quarry over the course of a decade becomes a kind of demented love story. Maya sleeps on the floor of her office, slumped against her files. Family is conspicuous by its absence. Her workmate Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) asks: “You got any friends at all?” But Maya only has eyes for her special guy, her Mr Wrong: Osama Bin Laden.

At the start of the movie, she flinches while her wild-eyed colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) beats and waterboards a terrorist suspect, Ammar (Reda Kateb). Soon, Maya learns to adapt. Faint heart never won foul jihadist and all that. Left alone with Ammar, she tells him callously: “You can help yourself by being truthful.” She is learning to stifle her conscience. If you do it for long enough, it ceases to be an act. By the end of the film, she is taunting her bosses and referring to herself as a “motherfucker” in top-level meetings. The iciness is endemic; empathy that should by rights go towards the rendered prisoners has to find its way out somehow. Dan grows tearful over a monkey, while another agent mourns a lead that goes cold. “I always loved that lead,” he says fondly.

The screenplay by Mark Boal (who wrote Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker) reveals nothing about Maya beyond her single-mindedness. But Chastain, who suggests a Julianne Moore action figure, is a lucid interpreter of the character’s blankness. Her face is as neutrally pale as a hospital screen obscuring a site of unspeakable horror. The most demonstrative acting is done by her tendrils of red hair. Just once, the film allows her to cut loose, when Maya berates a superior who wants to pull the plug on her Osama obsession. Even then, it’s the sawing tendons in her neck that do most of the work.

It has been claimed that Zero Dark Thirty glorifies torture – that it overestimates or fabricates the role it played in tracing Bin Laden to his Pakistan fortress. The picture does appear to make a direct link between Ammar’s torture and the helpful information he surrenders later to Dan and Maya over a hummus lunch. That connection might be misleading but it doesn’t negate the effect on the film of the torture scenes. If you can endure this spectacle without having your faith in the protagonists obliterated, then your detachment is to be envied (or feared). Those images, which come at the very start of the movie, provide a deliberately unsound foundation for what follows. Any accomplishments claimed by Maya are tainted by the crimes that have preceded them.

 Like any film that runs on suspense, Zero Dark Thirty has its instances of engineered excitement: the way the camera rises omnisciently above a suicide bomber driving towards his target or the agonisingly tense raid that dominates the final half-hour. There is also the problem that al-Qaeda has already written a draft of the script to which the filmmakers are beholden.

 Just as the threat of execution gives a deathrow drama its unsavoury buzz, so the attacks here are like ghoulish narrative reprieves from the backstage bureaucracy and paper-pushing. From the World Trade Center in 2001 (an attack that the film replays, like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, in sound only) to London in 2005 and Islamabad in 2008, there isn’t much that Bigelow and Boal can do to rewrite a structure dictated by terrorists.

What the film does well is to provide destabilising ambiguities that challenge a straightforward reading. When Barack Obama is seen on television boasting of his country’s “moral stature” and asserting, “America doesn’t torture,” Maya and Jessica exchange mockingly incredulous looks. And while the storming of Bin Laden’s compound by Navy Seals is edited and shot for maximum tension, the gung-ho aspect is offset by telling details, such as the shot of an entire double bed occupied by freshly orphaned children or, as we might call them, “guaranteed candidates for radicalisation”.

Late in the film, Maya is asked what else she has done in her career besides pursuing Bin Laden. “Nothing,” she says plainly. “I’ve done nothing else.” The picture asks: given what was lost in the process, was it worth it?

Jessica Chastain as Maya, the rookie CIA agent hunting Osama Bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty".

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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The top children’s TV show conspiracy theories

From randy Postman Pat to white supremacist Smurfs, we present to you your childhood in tatters.

We can probably all agree that, these days, nothing is sacred. If you can (as a few very insistent YouTube videos have told me) pay to watch live snuff films on the dark web, there’s probably someone out there – in the thronging nest of perversions that is the internet – ready to take something special from your childhood (say, a favourite TV programme) and make it unclean.

Which is exactly what happened when an internet-spawned theory found history’s least sexual fictional character, Postman Pat, to be a stop motion sex monster. The theory goes that he has fathered a lot of children in the village school, many of whom have ginger hair; Pat is the only red head in Greendale.


Because humans are incapable of not picking at every innocent thing until it goes gangrenous, here are some other childhood-ruining fan theories.

Babar is a colonial stooge


Babar lording it over the colonies. Photo: Flickr/Vanessa

Could everyone’s favourite anthropomorphic French elephant be an apologist for centuries of Western brutality and conquest? Well, yes, obviously. According to the “Holy Hell Is Babar Problematic” theory, the fact that the titular character was born in Africa, raised and “civilised” in Paris, then sent back to Elephant Land to be king and teach all the other elephants how to be French, makes Babar about as suitable for children as a Ladybird introduction to eugenics and a Playmobil King Leopold.

For further proof that this theory isn’t “political correctness gone mad”, but actually political correctness gone quite sensible, just look at some of the (deeply un-OK) illustrations from the 1949 book Babar’s Picnic.

The Smurfs are white supremacists


A horrifying vision of ethnic uniformity. Photo: Getty

Or maybe “blue supremacists” would be more accurate. Either way, they’re racist. Possibly. It’s been pointed out that the Smurfs all wear pointy white hats. Apart from their leader, Papa Smurf (the ultimate patriarch..?), who wears a red one. Meaning these tiny munchkin thingies are (maybe, just maybe) sartorially influenced by none other than the Ku Klux Klan.

This seems tenuous at best, until you look at a few other factors in this theory brought to light by French political scientist Antoine Buéno. Buéno suggests that the dictatorial political structure of Smurf Village paired with some actually quite convincing racism (when Smurfs turn black, for example, they become barbaric and lose the power of speech), equals Nazism.

What’s more, the Smurfs’ main antagonist – a wizard called Gargamel – is not unlike an antisemitic caricature from Nazi propaganda magazine Der Stürmer. He’s dark haired, hook-nosed and obsessed with gold. Oh, and he has a cat called Azrael, which is the Hebrew name for the Angel of Death.


 

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And, in case you’re not already far enough down the “Smurfs are racist” rabbit hole, just look at Smurfette and her long, blonde hair. Aryan much?

SpongeBob SquarePants is a post-nuclear mutant


Forever running from haunting memories of radioactive atrocity. Photo: Flickr/Kooroshication

According to one fan theory, this Nickelodeon classic may have more in common with The Hills Have Eyes than we think. SpongeBob, a talking sponge who lives in an underwater pineapple with a meowing snail, may well be the product of nuclear testing.

In the Forties, the US detonated two nukes in an area of the Pacific called Bikini Atoll. SpongeBob lives somewhere called Bikini Bottom. Coincidence, or an especially dark analogy for the dangers of radiation and man’s lust for destruction? Hm.

Tom and Jerry is Nazi propaganda


Skipping merrily through the Third Reich. Photo: Flickr/momokacma

Either we’re so obsessed with Nazism that we look for it (and find it…) in literally everything, or the antics of a classic cat and mouse duo really do contain coded messages about the futility of the Allies’ war with the Third Reich.

If we’re going for the latter, let’s start with the characters’ names. Tom (Tommies were British soldiers) and Jerry (Jerries were German ones). Now remember, Tom is the bad guy. In every episode, he tries to kill Jerry by any means possible, but is foiled every single time, getting blown up by sticks of dynamite and flattened by falling anvils along the way.

Tom and Jerry first aired in 1940 – the same year as the Battle of Britain. So, if the reference to slang for Brits and Germans was unintentional, it was more than a little bit unfortunate. And, according to some albeit sketchy-looking corners of the internet, this was no accident at all but a message (in that Jerry constantly outwits Tom) about superior German intelligence.

Although this may seem like the least compelling of all of these dark fan theories, it would explain why I always had a gut feeling the painfully smug Jerry was the actual baddie.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.