She was right. It was bin Laden. They killed him.
That’s the plot of Zero Dark Thirty, another tour de force from Kathryn Bigelow, but notorious for apparently condoning torture. The film does start with a long segment of waterboarding and shouting used as routine interrogation methods, and heavy rock music played all night to keep the prisoner sleep-deprived and stressed. I don’t have a problem with mind games, making someone think they’re drowning. And loud music? Heck, I used to stay up all night in my younger days listening to Hawkwind at full volume. Bring it on. At one point they put the prisoner in a wooden box. Really? The horror of it all.
The debate of the moment of course is about the morality and usefulness of torture. I’m on the side of those who thinks it doesn’t work and for that reason alone, I think it shouldn’t be used. Otherwise, if it works and if it saves lives; do it. I have no moral compunction about using the tame methods shown here, nobody was pulling fingernails out with pliers, or crushing bones, or burning soles of feet. Zero Dark Thirty is ambivalent about torture. It is just presenting what went on, albeit heavily sanitised, without moralising for or against. However, it does give us a wrinkle. It was what the prisoners omitted to say or what they said they knew nothing about that gave Maya, the CIA heroine of the film played by Jessica Chastain, the idea that the unknown figure they were asking about could lead to bin Laden. Maya was alone in that, and we see her bosses making decisions on what intelligence was reliable and actionable on the basis of how much it would harm their careers if they were wrong, they having been burned in the past relying on faulty intelligence obtained through torture. Inertia ruled. But Maya’s dogged pursuit of bin Laden finally wins the day after further corroborative evidence is obtained by traditional means, and a raid is mounted.
The whole film runs like a documentary, plain facts presented without varnish. There are even section titles such as “Tradecraft” flashed on the screen as the film moves into different segments. As such it is hard to develop an emotional attachment to any of the characters, even bin Laden’s ultimate death is underplayed and anti-climactic, coming at the end of another segment that shows all the preparations leading up to the raid the execution of which is nonetheless engrossing and incredibly tense.
Watching Maya following events back at headquarters as the raid unfolds reminded me of a scene in the World War Two movie, The Dam Busters. Barnes Wallis, inventor of the ‘bouncing bomb’, is waiting back at RAF Scampton having seen the bombers take off for the Ruhr dams. He is evidently distressed at having devised the means to mount the raid in the first place and this makes him feel personally responsible for putting the aircrew in harms way. Many did die. Maya was clearly having the same attack of guilt and this was perhaps the most touching part of the film although all her boys got back safely.
This is no gung-ho Bond movie, it is a gritty, realistic, gripping drama.