A movie of minutes

Kathryn Bigelow’s grim, new procedural film is about a lonely woman. It is also about bellicose maleness and military valour. The cast of characters in her Oscar-winning feature film, The Hurt Locker, (2008) is, like Zero Dark Thirty, from the American defence forces—in the first film, a three-man explosive ordnance disposal team during the Iraq war, and in the second, a team that tracks down Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan and then shoots him.

Both are thrillers, built on the widely-perpetrated, apocalyptic post-9/11 premise that the Muslim world is The Enemy, or the insidious Other. In the new film, Bigelow does not interpret the war. The Afghan or Pakistani characters have an air of danger about them. The film is free of the obvious caricatures any Hollywood film with a terrorism angle usually gloats in, but Bigelow is merely zooming in on the procedures of this ghastly war, inadvertently celebrating the “He killed us, we’ll kill him" motto. The script has no moral edge, only an uneasy ambivalence towards the end, eloquently expressed through silences by the lead character, the CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain). Maya is, as she says in her self-introduction to the CIA chief, “the motherfucker who found the place" (the Abbottabad target).

Zero Dark Thirty begins with scenes of third-degree torture on detainees of the US government—all somehow connected to the al-Qaeda network. Dan (Jason Clarke) is in charge of interrogation to find leads to the man at large. The desperation about bin Laden’s whereabouts, and the futility of torture methods, is writ large on every face, American and non-American. Brutal manoeuvres and the cuss word-laden language of soldiers are routine.

Torture cells barely make it to American movies. Gavin Hood’s Rendition (2007) with Omar Metwally and Reese Witherspoon is an exception—with a soft gaze on the CIA, it focused on the pain and desolation of a wrongly detained Muslim American. Torture is largely unacknowledged in the media or in films. Bigelow shows it unflinchingly.

Maya joins the team at a stage when hopes of a breakthrough are about to be dashed. She turns the mission into a personal obsession. The character of Maya, which Chastain has portrayed with striking care for detail, never talks about her life beyond the CIA. No personal detail is revealed. She is bullish, cold and steely—a remarkably refreshing woman character coming out of a Hollywood movie. The last scene, of Maya boarding a giant, whirring aircraft in which she is the only passenger, is telling of a crushing solitude, and Maya’s malfunctioning relationship with herself and her past. The ensemble cast, including a cameo by James Gandolfini as the brusque and cynical CIA chief, is top-notch.

American fictional narratives about the al-Qaeda seem to have reached a ripe moment. Homeland, the enormously successful TV series, is about a woman CIA agent played by Claire Danes. She and her team face a potential al-Qaeda threat through a former agent who has returned after having been held hostage by al-Qaeda. The two extremely clever films by Bigelow can make a genre in themselves—let’s call it the desert storm thriller since they are partly set in the humid, dangerous, dusty lands of the East and tap into a desperate hatred.

In 2002, after George W. Bush’s army had invaded Afghanistan, the late American author Susan Sontag wrote an essay about war photography and its power to move the senses, and its inability to solve the arguments in our heads about the nature of the war. “This is photography as shock therapy," she wrote. Bigelow’s films can similarly shock you, and keep you on the edge of your seat. The minute procedural details cloud the capacity for moral judgement, so Zero Dark Thirty does not provoke arguments against or for war and terrorism.

Zero Dark Thirty released in theatres on Friday.

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