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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser