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

Still from Being 17
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A guide to the top ten London Film Festival screenings you should go and see

Some of the most-celebrated films on at the 60th year of the BFI London Film Festival are sold out. Here are the ones that are still available – and worth seeing.

Feeling panicked because you haven’t booked any tickets yet for the 60th BFI London Film Festival, which is now less than two weeks away? Confused because you don’t know your Chi-Raq from your Paterson? Fed up that the movies you have heard good things about (La La Land, Toni Erdmann) are all sold out? Sick to the back teeth of being asked rhetorical questions which presume to know your state of mind?

Fear not. Below is a handy, whistle-stop guide to ten promising festival screenings for which, at the time of writing, there are still plentiful tickets to be had.

Being 17

Veteran director André Téchiné delivers what is rumoured to be one of his best films: a tantalising and exuberant tale of two teenage boys engaged in a mysterious mutual antagonism.

Elle

All hail the return of master provocateur Paul Verhoeven with this highly-regarded psychological thriller starring Isabelle Huppert as a woman whose response to being attacked is unorthodox and full-blooded.

Frantz

The mischievous writer-director Francois Ozon is always a good bet. I’ve heard two things from friends and colleagues about his new film, a wartime drama. First, that it’s brilliant. And second, that it is best watched without knowing anything about it beforehand—not even the name of the play on which it is loosely based. So I’m passing on those tidbits to you.

Heal the Living

Love Like Poison was a subtle and deeply affecting coming-of-age story set in rural France. Now that film’s director, Katell Quillévéré, returns with a drama about the emotional complications arising from organ donation.

King Cobra

A real-life murder case was the inspiration for this seamy but sensitive journey into the world of gay porn, in which a deadly tug-of-war ensues over a hot new teenage star. The cast includes James Franco, Christian Slater and Alicia Silverstone.

Mindhorn

Anyone who saw Mighty Boosh star Julian Barratt in Will Sharpe’s brilliant Channel 4 show Flowers earlier this year will know that he has developed new muscles as an actor. That bodes well for this comedy, which he also co-wrote, and in which he plays a washed-up actor recreating his best role – a detective with a robotic eye.

Moonlight

The acclaim from the Toronto Film Festival for this story of an African-American boy growing up gay in 1980s Miami has been deafening.

Personal Shopper

Kristen Stewart gave a revelatory performance as personal assistant to a lofty actor (Juliette Binoche) in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria. Now she’s sticking with Assayas and keeping it personal by playing a shopper to the stars, with a supernatural element thrown in – she’s a medium hoping to make contact with her dead twin brother.

Raw

Universal Pictures has snapped up this bizarre-sounding French-Belgian drama about a teenage veterinary student turned cannibal.

The Reunion

I’ve heard only good things about this tender love story set in Madrid, with one colleague even describing it as a Spanish Before Sunrise. Praise doesn’t come much higher.

The BFI London Film Festival runs from 5-16 October.

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.