We saw Zero Dark Thirty last night. For once a US action thriller turns out not to be a propaganda vehicle for the American way, but rather the opposite. First of all, the world’s greatest spy agency takes ten years to track down their Public Enemy No. 1. At the outset they use extraordinary rendition and torture in order to achieve this. It is not a successful strategy and has deleterious effects on morale. There is quite a high level of incompetence (allowing a dubious source into a military compound without any form of search resulting in multiple deaths) and lack of political will (it takes nearly 6 months after finding OBL before the powers can be persuaded to allow the SEALs to go in) shown throughout. It is, I suspect, utterly true to life. There must be some apoplectic politicians in DC.
The heroine, Maya, looks as if she would be cool to the touch. She is a woman operating in a macho man’s world. She is professional, driven, focused, determined, relentless, analytical and devoid of any humour. She is Kathryn Bigelow played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain. There is only the merest hint of an attraction to a fellow CIA agent, which is ruthlessly suppressed. There are two demonstrations of emotion: when her fellow operative is killed by the dubious source she sits on the floor slumped against a filing cabinet distraught, and at the end she allows herself a single tear. I can’t think of anything that would endear her to an audience, which, for this heroine, is perfect and gives you an insight into the Bigelow view of the world in which she operates.
The film is long. The processes are extensive. The torture scenes are writhingly drawn out. The investigations and analysis of major players operating round OBL are lengthily described. The final tracking down (by mobile phone triangulation) of OBL’s main contact with the outside world through the market places of Rawalpindi and Peshawar to the Abbattobad compound are minutely envisioned. And the final showdown, the assault by special forces on that compound, is shot pretty much in real time.
The finale was a very strange experience for a movie of this kind. There were no heroics. The assault was unopposed, of course. There was a disaster when one of the choppers crashed. The main problem seemed to be the number of doors that had to be blown in order to gain access. There were twenty odd SEALs versus 3 men, only one of whom was armed, and the rest were screaming women and wailing children who had to be corraled. As the attack lengthily and loudly developed lights came on in houses nearby. Men appeared on rooftops and in the street while the SEALs ransacked the place gathering up hard drives and files. They almost blew the relief helicopter when they destroyed the wrecked chopper in the animal compound. It was messy. It was low key. It was as far from Chuck Norris or Sly Stallone as you could possibly imagine.
A lot depends on your stamina as to whether you will enjoy this film. If you have the appetite for reality played out to this extreme you will find it utterly engrossing. Bigelow, and her screenwriter Boal, are determined to be absolutely faithful to their material. I can imagine them sitting around with producers saying: ‘No, that cannot be left out. That absolutely has to be in there. Shorten that and it will make no sense. Curtail that and it wouldn’t reflect the reality.’ So everything is in there. It is a ten year history of terrorism and how the CIA finally got their man.