Zero Dark Thirty

ZERO DARK THIRTY. Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, James Gandolfini, Stephen Dillane, John Schwab, Mark Strong, Joel Edgerton, Nash Edgerton. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Rated M (Mature themes, violence and coarse language).157 minutes.

Amazing that such a detailed film on the search for Osama Bin Laden (and finding him) could be in theatres within a year and a half of the actual events. The film has been praised (with awards, nominations and critical acclaim) for its picture of US intelligence and the work of the CIA (both effective and not). The film has been damned as a gung ho movie in favour of American foreign policy after 9/11. It has been criticised by US senators and intelligence personnel as providing a false image of the use of criticisms.

But… it is a feature film, a dramatisation, rather than a documentary. Clearly, there is always the danger that literal-inclined audiences will take each scene as presenting the truth, rather than representing aspects of the truth in a theatrical way.

One of the main impressions gained by this reviewer is how the search for Bin Laden was poorly handled for almost a decade. At one stage, Maya (Jessica Chastain) points out that the approach to finding him was based on pre-9/11 suppositions that he would be hiding in the caves of Afghanistan (which my be the impression that most people did, in fact, have) rather than in Pakistan suburbia.

The torture is certainly a significant issue and is presented graphically. To deny the extent of water-boarding may be accurate but in the light of the Abu Grab revelations, there was torture and humiliation of prisoners. As to how much information was gained by torture, that is a further discussion.

In the film, the torture sequences introduce us to Maya, deemed something of a ‘killer’ at the end of her training. At first she is repelled by the torture she watches. Then we see her get used to it, her further toughening in her work, much of which takes place in Pakistan.

But, it is Maya and her staff, her shrewdness in following through leads and hunches which does eventually lead to the identification of the whereabouts of Bin Laden and his family. Not that she gets a great deal of support from her bosses and from Washington officials – the mean don’t really think that women can be as effective as Maya (and underestimate her persistence, even when she posts the day by day delays on her boss’s door).

The culmination of the film is in the picture of the preparation for the raid, the helicopters’ night flight across the Afghan mountains into Pakistan, the details of the landing, the raid, the search, finding the family, identifying Bin Laden and his death).

This is a long film but, whatever one’s political opinions, one’s views on the CIA, one’s belief in America or not, it is a gripping film. It was written by journalist Mark Boal, who wrote the screenplays for In the Valley of Elah and the Oscar-winning, The Hurt Locker. Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker. She proves she can direct powerful action and war films with Zero Down Thirty.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


Out January 31, 2013.

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