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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Leader: Europe and the long shadow of war

Amid the rancour, it is easy to forget what drove European integration in the first place: the two great wars in the first half of the 20th century.

Amid all the claims and counterclaims about David Cameron’s so-called renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the European Union, it is often forgotten, or conveniently ignored, just how successful the European project has been in helping to create and maintain the post-Second World War peace order.

We support continued British membership of the EU but are sceptical of the imperial ambitions of the European elites. We opposed British membership of the single currency, a decision that the eurozone crisis has vindicated. It is obvious that the Schengen Agreement is unravelling and in all likelihood is unsustainable, as embattled nation states reimpose emergency border controls and the continent grapples with its worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War. Like the British government, we are opposed to further political and economic integration and to the creation of a federal or quasi-federal superstate.

However, at a time of profound instability in the world, we accept that it would be foolish for the United Kingdom to retreat from our various multilateral peace alliances – whether that be membership of the EU or, indeed, Nato (as some on the left would wish) – all of which involve some kind of surrender of sovereignty.

Amid the rancour, it is easy to forget what drove European integration in the first place. The two great wars in the first half of the 20th century racked the continent, with neighbouring armies slaughtering each other on a scale that still defies comprehension. As Alistair Horne writes on page 22, “the most atrocious battle in history” began a century ago next week in Verdun, France, on the Western Front. The German army hoped to lure the enemy into a trap and then “bleed the French army white” using its superior firepower. Yet the rivers of blood flowed both ways: in ten months, over 25 square miles, pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas, 300,000 French and German soldiers died.

The lessons of the battle were not quickly learned – the carnage of the Second World War was still to come – yet ultimately they were. In 1963, France’s Charles de Gaulle, who was wounded at Verdun, signed a treaty with the then German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, binding two countries that had engaged for centuries in tit-for-tat wars in an enduring nexus of co-operation. The aim, as David Reynolds notes in his article on page 28, was “to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism”.

Two decades later, President François Mitterrand, who fought near Verdun in 1940, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose father served there in 1916, attended a commemoration ceremony at one of the battle sites. In what became an iconic image of reconciliation at the heart of Europe, Mitterrand impulsively gripped Kohl’s hand during their national anthems. The two men were later the architects of the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union under its current name.

These are troubling times for Europe. Confidence and optimism are low. The wars in the Middle East and the rise of Islamic State, Russian revanchism and financial and economic turbulence have dented the morale of even the most committed liberal Europhiles. In addition, the EU seems unable or unwilling to control or police its borders, just as it has been unable to bring an end to the crisis in the eurozone. Nor is it any closer to forging a common foreign policy, let alone forming a common European army that might be necessary in future years to patrol the outer edges of the continent.

“Unless the EU can find solutions to the problems Europe is facing that are acceptable to its members . . . the Union will be on a glide path to collapse,” wrote the historians Brendan Simms and Timothy Less in a recent issue of the New Statesman. And yet, for all its flaws and present difficulties, the EU remains a force for stability in the world. It embodies the liberal, rules-based order without which barbarism and war are never far away, as the centenary of the Battle of Verdun so poignantly reminds us. 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle