Review: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

The Indian Express rating: ***1/2

The title of this film is spy talk for half past midnight, the time Osama Bin Laden was killed. There may be another reason the team of director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal picked this name -- it rings of a certain incompleteness, of an unpleasant pause.

Cut through all the talk about whether this film justifies torture or not, and why they went with a woman in the central role, and this is what Bigelow and Boal aim for. That the "war on terror" isn't covered in glory -- for either side. That the battle is long, hard and, most of the times, excruciatingly mundane. And that it's doubtful what killing Osama achieved, apart from the symbolism of it.

Do Bigelow and Boal succeed? Largely yes, but through a film that bleaches almost all the drama out in its devotion to details. As names are picked up, filed, analysed and sifted through data, Zero Dark Thirty feels too self-centred to bother with telling a story. Its characters talk to each other rather than to us, and that doesn't work when we already know the broad contours of where the conversation is going.

The central of those characters is a woman who goes by just the name Maya (a determined Chastain), a freshly recruited agent, considered a "killer" by Washington, sent to the hottest post in the world, Islamabad, after 9/11. While Zero Dark Thirty is the story of 'The Greatest Manhunt in History', it is for some reason told almost entirely from the viewpoint of Maya.

Not only is it half a viewpoint, it is not a convincing half either. Maya indignantly tells her boss in the film: "You don't understand Pakistan... you don't know al-Qaeda." Well, does she? You have to take her word for it, for we don't get a glimpse of this anywhere apart from her pouring over mountains of data on computers.

True to the ambiguity of her job, Maya doesn't get any sort of background or personal touch, apart from being seen flinching in her initial interrogation sessions with detainees and later insisting on sitting through them. Yes, she is dogged, tenacious and a great analyst. But, pieced together from many women agents who actually helped the CIA track Osama -- including one who followed the lead of the courier, which Maya persists with here -- she is just half a picture.

This is where the Bigelow-Boal team departs from The Hurt Locker. A more difficult story to relate to, it was told extraordinarily effectively by the means of how close it got to and lead us up to its subjects.

Zero Dark Thirty picks pace when the scent for Osama gets hotter, when it gets its hands dirty on the crowded streets of what passes for Rawalpindi and Peshawar, when an excited agent invites certain death in desperation that has caught up in the 10-year hunt for the world's most wanted terrorist, or when careful politicians need convincing in cynical, distant Washington. Bigelow certainly earns her stripes with the Abottabad raid alone, shown in extended detail but without losing any of the dangerous riskiness of it.

As for the much-debated interrogation scenes of Zero Dark Thirty, the talk largely revolves around one interrogation at the beginning where a financier to 9/11 proves hard to crack under tactics ranging from beatings and waterboarding to being kept locked inside a box, put naked in a dog collar and being subjected to sexual humiliation. Covering the entire gamut of what we saw at Abu Ghraib, the film hints that's de riguer at all CIA 'black sites' with detainees.

The other side has argued that Bigelow actually builds a case for brain rather than brawn as having cracked the hunt, given that it is eventually Maya who pieces the clues together. However, there is no disputing in the film where those clues came from -- from detainees tortured long and hard enough to spill the beans.

Let's be clear: it's unfair to subject this film to that scrutiny, as if justifying the morality of what is a war of our times should rest on its slender shoulders. Let's also be clear: those shoulders are firm but very slender shoulders.

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