Monday, 28 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Another day, another movie based on 'true' events - and with this one you know the outcome! This film opens with a dark screen and voices from emergency centres receiving calls from people caught up in the horror of the 9/11 attacks in 2001. It therefore starts by placing a large amount of emotional capital in the bank and the film uses this leverage throughout to justify the unfolding story.

The narrative runs in strict chronological sequence from September 11th 2001 through to May 2nd 2011. The story is told through the experiences of Maya (Jessica Chastain) a CIA operative recruited directly from High School. Initially she clearly feels uncomfortable about the methods employed by colleagues as they interrogate terrorist suspects. The action jumps around from Afghanistan to Poland, to Saudi, to America, to Pakistan and London. CIA and MI6 agents move through international borders like shadows as they seek their prize - Bin Laden, or UBL as they call him.

The intelligence gathering is slow and suffers many set backs. Dead ends frustrate and sometimes double and triple crosses lead to suicide bombings and deaths on both 'sides'. The hustle and bustle of Pakistan is portrayed with a vibrant dynamism (although for political reasons it was filmed in India). The interwoven network of families and Al Qaida members stretches from Arabia to the Punjab. The might of America's intelligence community is deployed against them, but with so many leads and so little to really go on, it is like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Maya's driven-ness becomes an increasingly stronger force as the story gathers pace. Her 12 year quest to find UBL consumes her. She has no social life, no friends, no life beyond her work. She is as fanatical as the man she is hunting. When she finally manages to get resources to gather intelligence it produces a lead which she is certain has disclosed UBL's location. Her frustration grows as the politicians, wary of another spectacular failure, procrastinate as they demand greater proof.

Finally the order is given and the operation begins. The operation is shown in great detail as a team of US Navy S.E.A.L.S. stealthily and systematically work their way through the compound using a shoot first, ask questions later, methodology. Mercifully most of the children are spared (though traumatised). As an action sequence it is masterfully shot and the tension and suspense are maintained at a high level. Maya is finally vindicated and she gets her man. Movie over.

Well, the action/spy movie might be over - but there is another movie that plays alongside it. Director Kathryn Bigelow chose to open the film with the eerie and haunting emergency messages from people trapped in burning buildings and hijacked planes. The frustrations of the CIA, and Maya in particular, are explored as they walk the tightrope between the Geneva Convention and doing what is necessary 'because we are at war'. The film openly shows suspects being tortured. Water-boarding is common practice and suspects are flown around the world to different rendition facilities in an attempt to break them and extract vital information. The story depicts the quest as a reaction to 9/11. Bin Laden always maintained that 9/11 was itself a response to Western imperialism's attack on Muslim values, practices and lands. And so the tit-for-tat goes on. As the stakes get bigger the justification for bending the rules becomes stronger. This story is told in a very one-sided way and there is no attempt to analyse what is going on - it is simply portrayed.

Let me make it clear that I am in no way seeking to justify 9/11 or 7/7 or any of the other acts of terror. I am simply commenting on the way this film tells its story. It feels like it takes upon itself the mantle of trying to offer the American people a cathartic attempt through the watching of this movie, to sigh a collective sigh of relief and say 'that chapter is now over'. But of course it is not over as too many families are still living with the consequences of the fateful attacks in New York, Washington DC, a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Madrid, London and Abbattabad.

It made me feel uneasy - that men and women are doing such things on my behalf. Living in a democracy, the Secret Intelligence Service in the UK and the CIA in America would claim to be acting on behalf of the people. This isn't some small-scale benevolent James Bond-like set up. This is war on a truly global scale. I am one of the people and I am naive enough to want to believe in a different way of doing business. Clearly Bigelow and Co pay respect to Muslim sensibilities. But the way in which we never quite see the face of the executed UBL and the respect with which his body is treated, contrast sharply with the jingoistic celebrations of the S.E.A.L.S. and the sense of  a job well done.

We live in a screwed up world and screwed up people will continue to do screwed up things. As an action film this had me gripped. As an account of the moral state of the world, it leaves me longing for the promise of the time when all tears will be wiped away, death will be no more and mourning, crying and pain will cease. I'll give it 5/10.

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