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Evil is relative in the hunt for bin Laden


Zero Dark Thirty (MA). Director: Kathryn Bigelow. Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke. 157 minutes

The film opens in 2003 with the humiliation and torture of a prisoner believed to possess intelligence related to the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. It is a graphic and disturbing scenario, but not sensationalised. For an action thriller Zero Dark Thirty is the epitome of understatement; a slow-burner that charts the protracted hunt for the man who orchestrated 9-11. It dwells in dingy offices and dusty streets and shadowy hallways as characters converse and observe and interrogate and slowly traverse the sparse breadcrumb-trail of clues.

The film's emotional core is Maya (Chastain), a young CIA operative who has spent her entire brief career on the trail of bin Laden. She observes the aforementioned scene of torture with a mixture of horror and pragmatism. Noting that the chief interrogator Dan (Clarke) has not bothered with a balaclava, she discards her mask, too, realising that the prisoner will never be released to point fingers or exact revenge. She is human, but she knows the nature of the game, and accepts the brutal methodology as necessary to help combat a greater evil.

This kind of moral relativity dwells in the very bones of Zero Dark Thirty, but as with her previous film, the Iraq War thriller The Hurt Locker, director Bigelow maintains a fine sense of moral detachment. The film's tagline dubs it 'the story of history's greatest manhunt for the world's most dangerous man', but this is ironic. By the time of bin Laden's execution in 2011 he had been in hiding for some years, with limited ability to communicate with the outside world and greatly diminished influence. Arguably, his dangerousness was largely emblematic.

As years progress, Maya becomes increasingly myopic, almost monomaniacal. When a superior points out, quite reasonably, that there are more demanding priorities than finding bin Laden, such as preventing future attacks, she responds with such righteous anger that he backs down. Asked later how certain she is that a secretive suburban compound in Pakistan is Bin Laden's hideout she responds '100 per cent' — an overstatement for what is really an educated hunch. She asks the Navy SEALS who are sent to infiltrate said lair to 'kill him for me'.

Such bloodthirstiness reveals that revenge is at the heart of Maya's quest; revenge for the horror of September 11 crystalised around her own grief and anger for the death of a friend at the hands of a suicide bomber. We can either sympathise with her thirst for vengeance or recoil from it. Certainly the silent tears she sheds during the film's closing moments leave open to question whether revenge has enhanced or diminished her humanity. In this the film quietly calls into question what America itself achieved in exacting its vengeance.

Zero Dark Thirty doesn't contain the intermittent adrenaline spikes that helped sustain the equally low-key The Hurt Locker, but it is riveting; a finely crafted procedural that builds to a tense and shocking finale in which a pair of stealth helicopters loaded with Navy SEALS rumble into Abbottabad to raid bin Laden's hideout. Even here, its tantalising moral ambiguity does not let up: in the aftermath, the combatants themselves don't quite know what to make of what they have done. 'I killed the man on the third floor,' says one with a strained smile. 

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

WIN MOVIE TICKETS: Icon Film Distribution has given Eureka Street ten double in-season passes to give away to see Zero Dark Thirty. For your chance to win email tim@eurekastreet.com.au by 5pm today, Thursday 31 January 2013. Include your postal address in the body of the email and the words ZERO DARK THIRTY in the subject line. Good luck!

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Osama bin Laden, 9-11, Afghanistan



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Existing comments

It sounds like a typical US effort, an uncritical film designed to, of course make money as all of them are, but mainly designed to praise the policy the USA has of denying its double-dealing and sheer hypocrisy, in calling other nations uncivilised while not exactly meeting that measure itself. A 'film to ignore', like most 'movies'. No doubt full of collagen lips and 'beauty' just to emphasise how 'good' the USA is.

janice wallace | 31 January 2013  

The recent book " The Finish" by Mark [ " Balck Hawk Down"] presents "The Hunt" very analytically and suggests policies/strategies such as using unmanned "drones" to eliminate the enemy 'Surgically" was always a preferred option for President Obama in Iraq and Afghanistan.

bernard p ryan | 31 January 2013  

Yes Bernard, the removal of any sense of moral responsibility in killing is a great step forward in the annonymous bombing campaigns now being waged against civilians by O'Bama and his God and Gun toting nation. Still, what with the constitutional right to carry arms there it won't be too long before some of them get their hands on a drone and start terrorising their fellow citizens with them. Then all the questions will come, 'how could people do this?' and of course, 'you'd have to be a crazy to act like that!'. Indeed. A crazy nation.

janice wallace | 31 January 2013  

I think the entire Bin Laden capture and execution was something straight out of an American western where the lynch mob hanged men without trial. If Bin Laden is the villain the Americans want us to believe he is they would have had more credibility if he had been exposed and brought to trial so that we could see that he had really been "caught". The capture and execution reeks of cover-up and baloney. Maybe Bin Laden is really living comfortably on George Bush Junior's ranch.

John Morris | 04 February 2013  

As usual, a pithy and incisive review, Tim. Catherine Bigelow was just the director to make this film. I think it rings very true of the moral ambiguity surrounding the whole War on Terror launched by George W Bush and the scenario we and the Muslim World seem locked into. Secret Intelligence, as John Le Carre, a former intelligence officer himself, points out in his brilliant novels, is a very morally ambiguous profession and many of its operatives somewhat monomaniacal and emotionally stunted. Being a monomaniac gets results. Whether Maya's "triumph" achieves anything is open to question. Bigelow leaves this open. In the real world I would suggest the overly late revenge on the then irrelevant bin Laden was counterproductive.

Edward F | 04 February 2013  

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