movie film review | chris tookey

Zero Dark Thirty

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  Zero Dark Thirty Review
Tookey's Rating
3 /10
Average Rating
8.57 /10
Jessica Chastain , Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler
Full Cast >

Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow
Written by: Mark Boal

Released: 2012
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 157

Another trivialisation of history.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to The Hurt Locker has been eagerly anticipated and is now being ridiculously over-praised by people who seem to be re-reviewing her last film, not studying the tedious travesty that’s in front of them here.

It is her second celebration of American determination and persistence in the war on terror. Like the hero of the previous film, CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain, pictured) has one thing on her mind: not to dispose of bombs this time, but to track down and assassinate Osama Bin Laden.

Where the previous film was a character study of a man grappling with his demons, Maya is pretty much a blank canvas, certainly not a living, multi-faceted character like Claire Daines’ equally driven CIA agent in TV’s Homeland.

Chastain does what she can with a poorly written role, emphasising her few moments of vulnerability: revulsion when she witnesses a CIA chum torturing suspected terrorists, fear when she is nearly blown up, horror when she learns that her one and only friend has been killed in another outrage – plus, at the end, tears of relief and exhaustion when she realises her mission has been achieved.

But it’s a glaring defect that she’s such a cold, opaque, one-dimensional figure, as involving as a pre-programmed cyborg. Despite her initial distaste for torture, she learns to join in, adding a little guile to the brutality. That pays dividends when she manages to bluff the name of Bin Laden’s chief messenger out of one man she’s been torturing.

This clear justification of methods that were universally condemned when they surfaced in 2004 at Abu Ghraib, has aroused much criticism in the USA, not least from CIA director Michael Morell, who denies that torture assisted the hunt for Bin Laden.

Ms Bigelow is quite explicit about the efficacy of such methods; her film is a straightforward account of a heroine using whatever it takes to catch a bad guy. Maya is no more morally conflicted than Bruce Willis in the Die Hard films, or Clint Eastwood’s avenging cowboys in spaghetti westerns.

The problem with the torture ingredient, which is covered repetitively and at length over the first hour, is not that Ms Bigelow depicts it, it’s the fact that she shows it without any moral or historical perspective. Neither her film nor her heroine cares anything for the tortured, and her response to the first torture she witnesses is a bizarrely egocentric “I’m fine”.

The film is interested purely in whether the torturers – who otherwise seem like decent guys - gain anything from the exercise. And in the film, if not in real life, they do.

Even if we leave morality out of the equation, Ms Bigelow and her writer Mark Boal simply omit all the evidence that torture resulted in unreliable information that, among other things, claimed Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were in league, and helped lead to the invasion of Iraq.

There was the opportunity here to examine a complex, important subject central to the history of our time. However, complexity, depth and character are not Ms Bigelow’s forte. She is very much an action director, and the most memorable sequence – where another female CIA agent (Jennifer Ehle) awaits an informer - involves suspense and explosive action.

The decision to tell the tale from the point of view of a single, female character will earn the director feminist brownie-points, but it inevitably results in anti-climax. During the final military raid on the Bin Laden compound, the heroine is reduced to a passive, impotent onlooker.

And, despite its many other failures, last year’s bog-standard action thriller Code Name: Geronimo did a more efficient job of showing us how the raid was planned and executed.

Zero Dark Thirty is very much in tune with Hollywood action movies and the gung-ho tendency in American foreign policy. It begins with terrified voices of people about to die in 9/11 and ends by giving us the catharsis of violent revenge.

The only other idea in its head is to glorify female determination and persistence in a world dominated by men.

Frankly, that’s a superficial, foolish and parochial way to approach the war on terror, and this is a silly, at times despicable film that never remotely deserved an Oscar nomination. Compared with this, Team America: World Police was a thinkpiece.

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