Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

"You Know That Thing We Talked About"
How Are Things in Tora Bora?

Writer Mark Boal and director Katheryn Bigelow have made the two most important dramatic films about The War on Terror: the 2009 Best Picture Oscar Winner The Hurt Locker and now, Zero Dark Thirty, which covers the behind the scenes investigations to track down Usama bin Laden and the subsequent Operation Neptune Spear in Abottabad, Pakistan.

The film originally started as a feature about the carpet bombing of Tora Bora, and the field work leading to the decision and was scheduled to begin filming when the raid occurred.  Immediately, the other film was shelved, and Boal began writing this, incorporating his research from the previous work which dovetailed with the earlier effort.  It's a fascinating, troubling story of human beings waging war on an intimate level, trying to secure threads of information on a specific target, while also trying to keep track of new terror acts that might occur any time, any where.

It focuses on one woman, a CIA analyst named Maya (played by Jessica Chastain)—her IM handle is "Maya173", but "Mark Owen," the nom de plume of one of the Navy Seals participating in the raid, refers to her in his book "No Easy Day," as "Jen." Maya is book-smart, street-savvy, but must learn "the ropes," literally, of interrogation by any means necessary.  She is trained in the way of torture by Dan (Jason Clarke), who has been at this for awhile and has it down to a science—the speech "If you lie to me, I will hurt you," the loss of control, the humiliation, the physical and mental stresses, the releases from which information may come.  Dan offers to keep Maya out of it, but she demurs.  She will participate.  She will actively sweat information out of the "detainees" in the euphemisms for prisons like "CIA Black Sites."  "You are not being fulsome in your replies" she yells as she slams her hand in the interrogation table.  And when she's not participating, she's poring over other interrogations, reams of intelligence, and being a general pain in the rear to her superiors and colleagues.  For station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), the job is to walk the razor's edge of politics and prevent more terrorism—he doesn't even care about bin Laden anymore, as there are too many attacks he's trying to prevent—every attempt that gets by is a failure.

But, for Maya, bin Laden is an obsession, her white Muslim whale, and it takes a zealot to find another zealot.  She'll veer off into other investigations, particularly when some of her own are killed in an attack, but time only intensifies her resolve, almost becoming a mania, and her patient investigation is off-set by a gloves-off approach to her superiors (when asked her role in the briefing by Leon Panetta, played by James Gandolfini, she replies "I'm the m#####-f##### who found this place, sir"), almost as if her persistent pressure torture techniques are being applied up the chain.The Obama White House dithers over action until absolute proof is obtained that bin Laden is held up at the Abottabad compound, but Maya is resolute.  When more cautionary analysts give the odds at 60%, she defiantly ups the odds to 100%—"Okay, 95%, because I know certainty freaks you guys out."  But, it's that certainty that fuels Seal Team 6 in their mission—in the videos below, she's specifically mentioned and lauded in Mark Owen's account.

It is a fascinating movie, but a draining one, starting with torture scenes and ending with a recreation of the raid as it went down, shot mostly in tense disorienting night-vision.  The character of Maya, or "Jen" or whoever she is, is a fascinating one, a portrait of obsession and the toll it bears—she's repeatedly told that she looks "terrible" throughout the movie—and when she lashes out at her superiors for their lassitude, or just plain pusillanimaty, there is a definite sense of someone unhinged—controlled, but pushed to the breaking point.  A fury waiting to unleash, she is our version of a Holy Terror, a match for her enemies, and one can't help but wish her peace...suspecting that it will never happen.

Zero Dark Thirty is a Matinee.

The FBI's notice of bin Laden's death and the Situation Room during the raid.
Bear in mind, one helicopter went down during the raid.

* There are torture scenes, but they're not commented on, and any politicizing of it is so much hot-air—one can see in the film any position they want.  It walks a very fine line, merely presenting, and if someone tries to see their point of view in it, they're merely counter-projecting.  

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