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Evil is relative in the hunt for bin Laden

  • 31 January 2013

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