Long before the first female Oscar-winning director was anywhere near shouting "action", it was clear Kathyn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty was going to be one of those films that set fire to the torch paper of ever-strong feeling about America's position on the global moral maze, and thus it has proved.
She may have been overlooked in this year's Best Director category, hence denying her a chance at an historic double (her first for another military outing The Hurt Locker, but dealing with the far less controversial courage of bomb disposal experts). Zero Dark Thirty has, however, earned a spot on the shortlist for Best Picture, and rightly so. I found it the most memorable and thought-provoking of the nine pictures listed. It would be a shame if, amidst all the political quarterbacking, Bigelow's stunning cinematic achievement was overlooked.
The agonised screams of 11 September 2001 punctuate the opening credits, and soberly remind us of the significance of the mission. From then on in, the film could easily be split into two halves.
The first 90 minutes tells the sweaty, painstaking and frustrating story of the hunt for Bin Laden by the CIA, from Islamabad embassy desks to interrogation sheds, and finally to an isolated compound at Abbottabad, half a mile down the road from Pakistan's elite Military Academy.
The second half builds to a minute-by-minute depiction of the Navy Seals' ensuing exercise - complete with helicopter rides through mountains, whispered instructions across walls, culminating in a tall man lying dead in his bedroom, shot through the eye, while the women around him weep.
Bigelow's account of this physical aspect of the mission is, thus far, beyond dispute. She gives us an intimate survey of contemporary warfare, where all the technological advances enjoyed by the military over the last half century still cannot out-trump elements of bad luck (the Seals' chopper crashing to the ground just as it is about to land at the compound) and good fortune (no soldier hurt in the accident, and little resistance ensuing despite the din they must have caused).
The director goes all out for accuracy in depicting this mission, filming on a purpose-built set identical to the actual compound, and the result is an extended sequence, full of enough military minutiae to delight Jane's Defence Weekly subscribers - exactly where the laser is positioned on the staircase so it remains unseen by the target, how a soldier identifies himself to his colleagues from the other side of thick door, and so on. We watch the whole thing through the soldiers' own night goggles, and the experience incites admiration both for Bigelow's masterclass in military film making, and for those highly-trained men who weren't on a film set 18 months ago, operating at the height of their skill set - quiet, purposeful, deadly in their work but supreme in their craft.
Bigelow claims the same accuracy for the first half of the film, which deals with the "advanced interrogation" procedures employed in Guantanamo and other detention centres, until President Obama decreed it otherwise during his first administration. While these assessments were conducted with the aim of identifying existing terrorists, preventing pending attacks and so securing the safety of civilians, it was agreed they involved unconscionable acts, robbing interrogator and subject alike of any dignity.
In Zero Dark Thirty, these scenes are suitably gruelling - some of the punishments for non-cooperation make you shudder with distaste for the Americans in the room - but Bigelow's treatment of them reveals the same commitment to a deliberately neutral stance the Guardian picked up in their recent interview with her, admirable self-discipline in a film-maker who could have got as carried away in either direction as her critics who have since come out fighting. Torture happened, she shows it. It no longer happens, and she showed that too.
Neither does she opt for simplistic heroism or villainy in her protagonists, the CIA agents charged with gaining information with whatever interpersonal tools they think best. There is hardly any back story to direct us emotionally, it is all in their faces, with Aussie actor Jason Clarke outstanding as interrogator 'Dan', weary of heart and dirty of hands. (READ more on the philosophical challenges of 'The Dirty Hands' problem here...)
For her role as CIA Agent 'Maya', Jessica Chastain already has a Golden Globe on her shelf, and is one of the Oscar front-runners. Not for one minute does her intrinsic glamour undermine her ability to portray a woman run raw, charmless, friendless and tireless with only one man on her mind - and any fears that Bigelow bowed to the needs of Hollywood and found a way to shoe-horn one of its most telegenic ladies into what should have been a lads' boot camp can be quickly laid to rest.
The real-life agent, on whom Chastain's role was based, was equally young, dedicated and brutally uncompromising in stalking her prey - (CLICK HERE to read her brusque dismissal of her colleagues after they'd all been rewarded for their intelligence work) - and the idea that there was one person willing to sit staring at the haystack until the needle revealed itself is the stuff of which great thrillers are made. Bigelow must have been very happy the day she came across this particular haystack-gazer, and was able to demonstrate that such women do exist beyond the borders of CIA fiction or Nordic television.
This year's cinema has been full of films speeding well past the two-hour mark, with some hovering indulgently nearer the 150-minute tedium threshold. Never have I sat so completely absorbed by a film this long, and felt ready to watch it again immediately. Possibly the only cliché came, surprisingly, with Mark Strong's appearance as a table-thumbing Pentagoner... "Bring me..." etc. Chastain's own unsettling way with a pen on an office window (I won't ruin it) was both funnier, and more effective in illustrating Agency impatience.
It's been a strange few weeks for Kathryn Bigelow, emerging blinking from the hermetic edit suite bubble of finishing Zero Dark Thirty, to find she's got a lot of explaining to do, apparently. Usually, a film maker can get away with a dismissive "I've said everything I have to say in the movie" when asked to justify themselves, and leave it up to the audience to make up their own minds. But she must have known it was coming.
For the last year, we've had mixed reports about the unprecedented 'help' her team were getting from the Pentagon's top brass in telling the story of what was, in some ways, their finest hour - the pursuit and capture of the world's most wanted, Osama Bin Laden. The fact that this chapter of US history is inextricably associated with unsettling accounts of less than savoury activities has inevitably led to questions about how heavy an ideological paw print the US's military machine would leave on Bigelow's celluloid.
In her press rounds so far, Bigelow has taken what the Guardian calls 'a politician's stance', almost wilfully neutral, which, if true, means she's one of the very few so placed. Those on the left have accused her of condoning torture or making 'implicit connections' between torture and capture (READ the Guardian calling her on portraying the Western protagonists sympathetically, and what HuffPostUK's own Mehdi Hassan has to say here on the 'implicit connections' in the film). Meanwhile, those at the Pentagon have accused her of making connections that didn't exist, and voices of dissent including Senator John McCain, reiterating that torture was in no way instrumental in finding the man they call 'UBL'.
Meanwhile, this same awards season has seen Steven Spielberg, evidently equally fascinated by US politics in time of war, opting for the challenge, the relatively benign one as it turns out, of bringing President Lincoln's duality - his idealism and brinkmanship both - to the screen, and is currently enjoying Academy front-runner status, despite acknowledging Abe's willingness to prolong a war that sent thousands to their deaths. And Quentin Tarantino has been answering questions (or refusing to... Watch his treatment of a UK interviewer here) about his deliberately entertaining take on slavery in Django Unchained. Can you imagine if Bigelow had given one of her Guantanamo interrogators a somewhat distracting wig, a la Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln, or found a place for a word-curling scene-stealer like Christoph Waltz?
I'm not saying that time has healed the scars left by these other chapters in history or that Bigelow should have been encouraged to turn her film into comedic, soft-focus fodder, but she has evidently taken a rockier road in opting to work with contemporary events, still emotive and troubling to a huge number of people, and the gaze on her work is particularly forensic. There are papers yet to be written, records to be researched, people to be interviewed and held accountable after the relatively few years since 9/11, and the 18 months since Bin Laden's killing. The jury's still out on Abe and his decisions ("why didn't we just stop buying cotton?" asked screenwriter Elaine May only the other day in Vanity Fair...) and he died in 1865, so we probably shouldn't expect the dust to settle on the events of Zero Dark Thirty just yet.
In the meantime, Bigelow's decision to opt for straight-down-the-line narrative may have left room for polemicists to come wading in, but also for - and are we ready for this? - cinema-goers also to scratch their heads, mull over their instinctive reactions to the questions of war, reach for the internet to ask again the questions of why, how, what was justified, what helped, what hindered in the pursuit of the world's most wanted terrorist, and no doubt to realise once again just how complicated the whole horrible thing is, with no quick-fix answers. The reward for this outing to the cinema is 157 minutes of absorbing, disturbing thriller that flies by, and the opportunity to ponder the politics afresh, which might just take a bit longer.
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