America vs OBL: the weirdest war

Ignore the luvvies who say she supports torture - Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is cleverly ambiguous about the 'war on terror'.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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The word ‘controversial’ gets tossed around a lot in the film world these days.

In recent weeks, the tag was firmly attached to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, the blaxploitation-come-spaghetti western which some say exploits the sorrowful history of slavery for cheap gags and bloody thrills. Towards the end of last year, even Skyfall, the latest in the Bond franchise, set off a rumble of criticism over its noxious machismo – something so ingrained in the franchise it beggars belief that people are still surprised or upset by it. 

The latest movie in the dock is Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which recounts the 10-year search for al-Qaeda mastermind, Osama bin Laden. It stands accused of justifying the torture methods deployed by American anti-terrorism operatives in the years following 9/11. The backlash has seen Bigelow compared to Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl; US senator John McCain has claimed the movie left him ‘sickened’; and a coterie of industry insiders have petitioned for it to be stripped of its Oscar nominations.

As is so often the case, a casual viewing reveals this righteous indignation to be a whole lot of piffle. If anything, ZD30 is rather safely poised, rejecting self-important moral posturing as well as retributive, ‘we got the bastard’ flag-waving. And, in spite of all the outrage, it has largely been embraced by the critics on those terms.

In the retweet, reblog, internet echo-chamber, the few shrill voices often carry further than they should, and its something that the rest of us, myself included, only play into by feeling the need to unpick and counter their declarations. 

In fact, ZD30 is a zingy, largely generic ‘war on terror’ procedural that is really nothing to get upset about; it feels, at times, like an extended episode of Homeland, albeit with a little more bite. That said, it is a subtly cerebral thriller that poses some crucial questions about this defining chapter in recent history – questions that are so often washed over by shallow moral posturing and platitudes. It is a film that certainly deserves our delectation, aside from all of the over-amped ire. 

Through the steely eyes of one fanatical operative, Maya (Jessica Chastain), Bigelow unfurls the decade-long story. From her first, sobering introduction to detainee camps in 2001, through to the political sea-change that saw Washington denounce the practice of torture, Mark Boal’s screenplay provides a fascinating insight into the fluctuating moral landscape of anti-terror. This is never more poignantly evoked than when Maya’s mentor retires to a Langley desk job, warning her not to be the last one caught on a ‘black site’ holding a dog collar. 

The torture scenes are composed with great care. In the opening half hour we witness a detainee being beaten, deprived of sleep, stuffed into a tiny wooden box, and water-boarded. The scenes are hellish and deplorable but always leave you with unsettlingly mixed feelings. Importantly, the detainee isn’t a head honcho with blood on his hands, but a low-level al-Qaeda money-man who you feel inclined to believe when he insists he doesn’t know anything. Meanwhile, his tormentor, Dan (Jason Clarke), is at once sadistic – plying his craft with jockish swagger – and endearing, taking a shine to the local wildlife and serving as a kind of big brother figure to the rest of his crew. Good guys and bad become fluid roles in the murky, post-9/11 waters. 

When it was announced that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed by Navy SEALs on 2 May 2011, it caught the world off guard. While still the dartboard pin-up of anti-terror, OBL’s taunting videos had disappeared from the media and rumours spread that he was either long dead or had effectively retired from his campaign of evil. 

The news of the operation’s success, while well received on the homefront, felt more like the settling of a grudge than essential counterterrorism strategy. This conflict is ingrained in Maya’s character. The search for bin Laden begins as merely the job at hand, but as the years wear on and more of her colleagues are slain, it becomes more of a blood debt. As she chases down OBL’s elusive courier, and battles with nay-saying superiors whose priorities have shifted, the pace picks up. But among the many thrilling twists, turns, leads, close calls and near misses, we are often left pondering her motives.

Not being one for the classic, backrow fornication, the final storming of bin Laden’s compound was the most thrilling experience I’ve had at the cinema in a very long time, the direction’s grainy, night-vision-goggle intensity surviving our foreknowledge of the event.  

But given the film’s ambivalence, the line between pragmatic homeland defence and mere retribution constantly being blurred, it ends on a less-than-jubilant note. When the soldier who successfully takes out OBL returns to his platoon, a fellow solider asks, ‘Do you realise what you just did?’. 

He can’t answer and neither can we. Such is the strength of Zero Dark Thirty

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Zero Dark Thirty here:

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