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 didn’t cure my depression – but for an hour a day, it helped

These books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But at my lowest moments, Harry Potter was the only thing I enjoyed.

Just over a year ago, I was on a plane to Japan being violently sick. I had filled exactly two-and-a-quarter sick bags with my half-digested ginger-chicken-and-bread-roll before I decided to think about Neville Longbottom. As the plane rocked from side to side with turbulence, I sat completely stiff in my seat, clutching my armrests, and thinking of Neville. I told my boyfriend to shut up. In an effort to abate my nausea, I distracted myself for the remaining hour of the flight by picturing the peaceful plant-lover over and over again, like a visual mantra. I wasn’t sick again.

I’m telling you this anecdote because this was the only time in my life that Harry Potter acted as some strange and magical cure (even then, the fact there was no inflight meal left in my stomach to throw up had more to do with it). And yet, a few years before this, Harry Potter did help me through my depression. When we talk of Harry Potter and depression – which we do, a lot – we imagine that the lessons of the book can teach us, in a Don’t let the Dementors get you down! way, to not be depressed anymore. What do you mean you want to kill yourself? Banish that beast to Azkaban with your silvery kitty cat Patronus!! For me, it wasn’t like that at all.

In 2013 I was depressed. And Harry Potter helped me through. But it wasn’t magical, and it wasn’t wonderful, and there was no lie-back-and-think-of-Neville instant fix. When I closed the cracked spine of the last book, my depression didn’t go away.

Here’s some context, as plain and painlessly as I can put it. I had just graduated from university and ended my four year long relationship. I was living at home and working three jobs a day to be able to save up to do a six-month journalism course in London (the course was free, but eating is a thing).

Early in the morning, my mum would drive me to the local hospital where I would print out sticky labels and put them on patients' folders, in between sobbing in the disabled toilets. Around lunch, I’d go to work in a catering department, where I printed yet more labels and made sure to order the correct amount of gravy granules and beef. At five, my mum would pick me up and drive me home (thanks mum), and I’d have an hour or so to eat something before going to work in the local steak restaurant for the rest of the night. (On weekends, I had a fourth job - I would wake up early to scrub the restaraunt's toilets. Yay!) 

It sucked – even though there was, at least, a woman in the hospital who liked to do an impression of a Big Mouth Billy Bass fish.

“You’re not just depressed, you’re depressing to be around,” said the boy I was not-dating, two weeks after I said we should stop not-dating and a week after I begged him to start not-dating me again. If I was being dramatic and poetic, I’d say he was the kind of boy who stopped at nothing to make you feel unloved, but if I was being honest I’d say: he was really bad at texting back. Still, tip for anyone wondering what to say to someone who is depressed: Not This.

This wasn’t, exactly, the moment I realised I was depressed. (For a little extra context, note that it was Christmas Eve eve!) For a few months, my tongue had felt constantly burnt. Every moment of every day, my mouth felt like I had just bitten into the chewiest, gooiest molten pizza and burned off all my taste buds. Except I hadn’t. Eventually, Google told me this was a little-known symptom of depression called “burning mouth syndrome”. After ignoring clues such as constant crying, and knowing-the-exact-number-of-storeys-you-have-to-jump-from-to-ensure-you-die, I realised what I was. You know, depressed.

And round about here was when Harry came in. I’d always been obsessed with Potty Wee Potter, from the lilac HP branded M&S fleece I wore as a child, to making my brand new uni mates don pillowcases and bin bags to dress up for a screening of Deathly Hallows, Part 1. But by 2013, I hadn’t read the books for a while. So I started again.

I can’t emphasise enough that these books didn’t cure me. They didn’t even come close. But one of the worst parts of my depression was my anhedonia – which is the inability to feel pleasure in things you previously found enjoyable. I would spend (literally) all day at work, dreaming of the moment I could crawl into bed with a cheese sandwich and watch my favourite show. But the first bite of the sandwich tasted like dust, and I couldn’t concentrate on watching anything for more than thirty seconds. I lost a lot of weight incredibly fast, and there was no respite from any of my thoughts.

Except: Goblet of Fire. Harry needs a date! And Hermione wants a House Elf revolution! Wait, does Ron fancy her? Harry can’t manage Accio and THERE’S AN ACTUAL DRAGON ON THE WAY. The fourth Harry Potter book is now my favourite, because its episodic and addictive structure meant I couldn’t put it down even when I knew what happened next. I couldn’t enjoy anything in my life at that time, and I’m not even sure I “enjoyed” Harry. But the books were a total and complete distraction, like slipping into a Pensieve and floating down into another world where you could lose track of the time before being yanked, painfully, up and out.

I didn’t learn any lessons from the Dementors. I didn’t learn that love would get me through. As valuable as these messages in Harry Potter are, none of them helped me with my depression. What helped me was – and I can say it and you can say it, because 450 million sold copies have said it – insanely good writing. Addictive, un-put-downable writing. All-consuming, time-consuming, just-a-second-mum-put-mine-back-in-the-oven writing. Writing that allows you to lose yourself in the moments you most want to be lost.

That’s not to say, of course, that the messages of Harry Potter can’t help people through dark times – they have and will continue to do so for many years. There is no right way to be depressed, and there’s no right way to stop. But for me, Potter helped me through my anhedonia when nothing else at all could. It wasn’t magic. It was something ordinary in a world where everything had changed.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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