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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Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage: how fanfiction got me into writing

My fanfiction was almost uniformly awful, like most of the things I did or liked when I was becoming myself.

The source of the noise was clear. Some kind of monster was emerging from the wood.

"Easy, Harry," counselled Hagrid, "Easy.”

Nervously, the bespectacled wizard approached the hulking beast cautiously. What was it? It had red leather skin, like a sofa, was bigger even than Hagrid and had a pair of cruel horns.

You may not recognise the above passage from any of J K Rowling’s seven entries in the Harry Potter series. That’s because it’s not by Rowling at all, but is taken from Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage by awideyedwanderer, the alias under which I, with the addition and subtraction of a few dashes and underscores depending on the platform, wrote fanfiction from 2000 to 2006.

To deal with the obvious questions, no, it was not about the Labour party, and no, I don’t think anyone ever had sex, except perhaps very briefly towards the end of the story. (As such, it was a fairly accurate reflection on the life of its author during that period.)

Fanfiction often gets a bad rap, in my case deservedly. One former editor of the New Statesman used to say of one of his staffers that he was “the Fred West of prose”, and my fanfiction was not much better. I hacked my way through the universes of Harry Potter, Doctor Who, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Final Fantasy and Star Trek. I also perpetrated my own, highly derivative “original” fiction, featuring a character called Mr Jones who was basically Doctor Who with a gun.

My fanfiction was influenced by whatever novel I was reading and whatever the current state of my politics were, which meant that as the Noughties wore on it became increasingly dominated by thinly-veiled allegories for the excesses of the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.

What got me started? Well, it’s all J K Rowling’s fault. I was an early adopter of the Harry Potter books, and though the first three books came out every year, there was a three-year gap between The Goblet of Fire and The Order of the Phoenix. So without a new book, Potter fans had to write their own, of which Harry Potter and the Minotaur’s Rage was one.

At this point in this sort of article, it’s usually customary to defend fanfiction by pointing out that some of it is actually very good, while some of it has made a great deal of money. My fanfiction was neither good nor financially lucrative, but I always think this misses the point a bit. Very few people think they are producing high art when they write fanfic – people are doing it to have a good time, to expand a world they’ve enjoyed.

My fanfiction was almost uniformly awful, like most of the things I did or liked when I was becoming myself. (In its defence, I think my fanfiction has aged better than Evanescence, a band which provided the soundtrack and most of the chapter titles to my fic.) But I had a great time writing it, and if nothing else, it taught me never to begin a sentence with “nervously” and end it with “cautiously”.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.