Zero Dark Thirty is not an easy movie. The first 30-40 minutes is almost literally, and figuratively, torture. Then again, it’s not dealing with an easy subject. The War on Terror, whatever that really means. Who gets to define the terms of such a war or even the parameters of what we define as terror? It’s a simple soundbite to explain something of immense complexity in lowest-common-denominator terms and it probably means something slightly different to everyone, regardless of which “side” they are on. The phrase itself is largely attributed to George W Bush in the days following 9/11 and it has provided a handle for people to hold on to during military campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and (more covertly) Pakistan, and in the wake of terrorist atrocities in New York, London, Madrid and Mumbai (and more besides). The strand running through this has been the part played by Osama (or Usama) bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network. It therefore makes sense for Zero Dark Thirty to focus on the manhunt for bin Laden.
The film itself opens on a blank screen, which lingers for some considerable time, with actual voice recordings taken from disparate sources from that Tuesday morning in September 2001. There is panic, shock and horror in the voices presented to the cinema audience and an immediacy and ‘realness’ about their inclusion and it engenders an emotional response in the listener. It’s an interesting approach to take. Many film-makers would have opened with the visual impact of planes slamming into towers, yet in some ways, this is more intimate, more personal and because of that more powerful than the images we have become accustomed to. It could also be considered highly manipulative, yet, in some ways, this one short sequence represents the only emotional element of the film, as the camera at last opens up and we are transported to a CIA Internment facility and the first of a series of torture sequences and we are asked as an audience to reconcile our feelings of horror about 9/11 against the backdrop on physical and mental abuse of another human being. In less than 5 minutes of screen time, Kathryn Bigelow has challenged any black and white perceptions you, as an individual, may have. This is not a director telling us how to feel. This is a director who is giving us an opportunity to decide for ourselves.
The title of the movie in itself is somewhat misleading. Using military terminology to reference the nighttime US Special Forces raid on the compound in Pakistan where bin Laden was believed to be sheltering, it suggests that this is the focal point of the movie. Many people familiar with Bigelow’s previous films would perhaps expect this – a focus on the action. She’s created a reputation for this. Perhaps there is more focus on her work generally simply because she is a woman and it’s so alien to have a woman focus primarily in creating action cinema. Perhaps there’s more focus on her because she’s hot (as a matter of fact, she is, but that’s neither here nor there). Perhaps she only gained an Oscar for The Hurt Locker because everyone liked the idea of her beating her ex-husband to the award. All of these views would be unfair on someone who is not just a great action director for a woman, but a great action director full stop. Ask the boys from Hot Fuzz where Bigelow’s seminal work of surfers, bank robberies, ex-presidents, a particularly poor cameo from Anthony Kiedis, adrenaline and testosterone – Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze starring Point Break, in particular the epic on-foot chase sequence (I particularly love the dog @ 2’53”) – is referenced and homaged (many other directors have also copied the style – see Bad Boys for just one example of a similar on foot chase sequence) Cross-reference that with her visual inventiveness (notably her use of POV (point of view) camerawork in Strange Days), her ability to ratchet up tension to remarkable, palpable levels (see The Hurt Locker) and her ability to deliver a female lead who combines vulnerability with tenacity and strength (see Blue Steel) and you’ve got a very talented filmmaker indeed. Not to mention the fact that she’s responsible for the best (English Language – important caveat!) vampire movie of the last 30 years in the shape of Near Dark (sorry Twilight fans, though the late, great, Tony Scott ran her close with debut feature The Hunger – all 80s mood lighting, smoke and David Bowie, with a particularly erotic sapphic love scene). Yet, surprisingly, the raid, though acting as a climax to the film, is not the focal point of the story and Bigelow doesn’t get to flex her action muscles until 2 hours into the movie.
There’s a reason for this. The film wasn’t supposed to be about finding and killing bin Laden. It was about the search. At the time of writing, no one knew if bin Laden would ever be found (to provide one of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld‘s many suitable quotes at this point – “[Osama Bin Laden is] either alive and well or alive and not too well or not alive.”). The film was designed to document the decade long hunt for America’s Most Wanted and the human cost, on both sides, along the way and in many ways, that explains the tone of the movie. The neutrality of it. A cataloguing of a long seemingly fruitless journey through the eyes of a CIA analyst, set against the backdrop of a wider global picture. That the excellent Jessica Chastain (whose performance suffers from inappropriate and irrelevant Clare Danes/Carrie Mathison comparisons) as Maya manages to carry the narrative through to the point of the raid is a tribute to her (and made me realise why she’s so highly regarded) and sums up the movie perfectly. The raid is more of an afterthought (and strangely feels that way too – almost an unwanted addition) and she is separate from it. This is not to undermine the vice like grip that Bigelow and her cinematographer Greig Fraser (clearly brought in to handle the tricky night vision sequences and make them legible, for which he does a fantastic job, though his daylight scenes are ugly and washed out) exhibit in this sequence. It is brilliantly done and remarkably paced. But it’s not what the film is all about. There might have been a temptation for Bigelow to leave it out entirely for fear of it coming across as Gung-ho Americana (for all those individuals who celebrated outside the White House when the news of the raid’s success was announced, which I found particularly unsavoury). I’m glad she didn’t, because a pay-off was needed after the lengthy journey to that point, but I’m glad it wasn’t used as an exclamation mark for the film. In this manner she has shown great restraint and subtlety (unlike say Steven Spielberg in his closing shot for the otherwise excellent Munich). One can imagine that things might have been a little different with a number of other notable directors at the helm (I feel the need to mention Oliver Stone at this time, just because he was a name that sprung to mind)
Maintaining neutrality against such a backdrop is incredibly difficult because it all stems from an event that touched everybody’s lives. 9/11 was my generation’s Dealey Plaza. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. Inclusion of an understated visual reference to the 7/7 bombings in London, strikes home even more effectively for British audiences. But this isn’t a revenge drama on a Worldwide scale. This is more than that. That the film was made with help from the CIA (leading some to accuse it of being propagandist) makes the final result all the more surprising. I wonder who gave final sign off for the demonstration of waterboarding for those who wondered exactly what it is? As with the look of the film itself – scenes in daylight followed by the night time raid, there is light and dark. It’s left to the audience to interpret the shades of grey (no, there aren’t fifty – stop snickering at the back!)
Bigelow isn’t totally alone in her achievement. Back in 2006, Paul Greengrass (of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum fame) presented United 93, the story of the fourth plane hijacked on 9/11 which crashed in rural Pennsylvania following the attempts of the passengers to regain control of the aircraft. It was a controversial film to make, regarded as coming too soon after the events when America’s psyche was still scarred. Yet the same wasn’t said of Oliver Stone’s (yes, him again) World Trade Centre also released that year. There may be a reason for that. Unlike Oliver Stone’s work, which is an emotive focus on the emergency services caught up in the events of the day, a portrayal of hearoes to be held up to the American people as a shining example, United 93 is detached in exactly the same way that The Hurt Locker is. Greengrass started life as a documentary filmmaker and producer, but he is from the Peter Watkins school of drama documentary filmmaking (though not political and much more even handed in his approach) and was responsible for the remarkable Bloody Sunday starring James Nesbitt. The choice, to my mind could not have been better.
We can, of course, only surmise what might have actually happened on that flight, pieced together from cellphone conversations and it would have been very easy to portray events in a gung-ho fashion. Greengrass doesn’t do this, instead shooting the film like a documentary. The events of the day unfold, almost in real time (the film remains the most perfectly paced film I have ever seen, unlike Zero Dark Thirty which is somewhat episodic, like Traffic or Syriana, a fault also with Mark Boal’s script for The Hurt Locker) with the use of people who were actually there on the day recreating the events rather than actors, most notably Ben Sliney, the FAA National Operations Manager who issued the grounding order for all aircraft that day. People in the movie, including the hijackers, seem real to the audience, not charichatures of good and evil. It’s for us as the audience to get a sense of what’s happening and draw our own conclusions. Greengrass doesn’t seek to tarnish the memories of anyone involved by portraying them as anything less than heroes, but nor does he seek to elevate them to a status beyond that of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Maybe that’s what the American audiences objected to. Perhaps I would feel differently if I saw an American production surrounding the events of 7/7, though I think if the film maker involved showed the restraint and necessary detachment exhibited by both Greengrass and Bigelow, I like to think that I wouldn’t have too many problems with it.
Clearly I’m not advocating this style of film making for all movies, but there must be a place for it, a time when it’s not about being taken for a ride, but about someone looking objectively at events to allow the audience to look at them more subjectively. Neither of these two films is a crowd pleaser. They are both difficult – Zero Dark Thirty more so – and it is an emotionally draining experience watching them. But they remain your emotions, having been given the space to think and feel for yourself.