Zero Dark Thirty and the Post 9/11 Self-Evaluation
The final shot lingers on Jessica Chastain's face as she sits alone in a military aircraft. The pilot asks her, "Where do you want to go?" She starts to cry, her face listless. She doesn't know. And either do we, suggests Kathryn Bigelow. With our elusive public enemy number one murdered, after more than a decade of hunting, what gives our tortured and violent post-9/11 lives meaning now? Interestingly, Bigelow and her Hurt Locker writer, Mark Boal, have used Zero Dark Thirty not only as the exploration of the hunt for bin Laden, but also to pose a potent question about life after his defeat. It has been crafted as a vehicle to perfectly encapsulate the post-9/11 psyche, but the extent to which it succeeds is questionable.
The opening scenes show the painfully drawn-out and detailed torture of a detainee in an undisclosed CIA black site. Chastain at first is taken aback, the violence inherent in CIA interrogation techniques makes her uncomfortable. As the film carries on, however, she develops an obsession, a kind of bloodlust in her tracking of bin Laden. Degrading and inhumane as the torture may be, her objective begins to override her moral codes as her leads continually draw dead ends. With its very narrow focus on CIA analyst Maya's pursuit of the world's most wanted man, the film depicts that world in chaos, devoid of self-control and tainted with suicide, bus and car bombings, with Chastain, in part, the embodiment of public sentiment during this time.
This depiction however, in its supposed detailed and factual presentation, is consistently anti-climactic. With a run-time of almost three hours, the addition of every little development pertaining to the CIA's tracking becomes insanely tedious. Because, despite what you might think of the investigation, there really weren't a lot of leads or new information in the years following 9/11. It basically centres around one of bin Laden's couriers, Abu Ahmed, and the many failed attempts at locating him. While there are some scenes of notable tension and excitement, the film is a lot of filler, as was the CIA's investigation, it would seem. This presentation is detached. With its representation of torture and political callousness, the film resists the temptation to comment on the events that take place. An element which largely and cleverly places itself outside the realm of propaganda, but leaves the film lacking in engagement and intrigue. The characterisations are left by the wayside to Bigelow's finicky nature, rendering what should be the exhilarating manifesto of a defining point in modern history, boring.
Which is a shame, because the perfect casting is completely squandered. Chastain, as she consistently proves, is flawless. Swinging from quietly brooding to vehemently insisting, she never lets up. Also included on the bill is the criminally underused Kyle Chandler, who plays Chastain's immediate senior in the CIA, the wonderfully emotive Fares Fares, who plays a Pakistani advisor and the upcoming Aussie Jason Clarke, who plays one of Chastain's colleagues. These players add as much dimension as possible to the otherwise barren script.
The only real enjoyment to be had in the film is the perverse pleasure in knowing all of the little details in bringing down the terrorist. For those hoping to gain some catharsis for the ludicrously drawn-out debacle of capturing a 54 year old man on dialysis: you should look elsewhere. This isn't a celebration, a joyous heralding of a new era in history. It doesn't frame the death of bin Laden as a happy event. It is an introspective questioning on society at large, and how we've changed following September '11. Are we a people defined by our enemies? At what price have we achieved our goals? After a decade of waiting, what drives us from here? And, was 3 hours of this line of questioning worth my $15? Who can say?