Thursday, 14 February 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Should have gone with plan A

Zero Dark Thirty is uncomfortable viewing, but I'm not sure that makes it a good movie. It's a dogged, straight-faced attempt to show how a powerful country went about finding and killing an elusive enemy, and it doesn't make any effort to make that kind of endeavour look more glamorous than it is. There's been a huge amount of fuss about its depiction of torture and whether this is meant to be a criticism of torture or a vindication of it; I thought it was simply an effort to show the things which happened along the way and let the viewer decide for himself. The fact that everyone seems to be able to get angry about it in their own way tends to bear me out, I think.

My own view is that the movie shows us some - by now means the worst - of what we already knew was done, and the action that unfolds from it. I don't think the movie shows torture as being in any way useful for intelligence; nothing we see done in a black site ever seems to turn into the prevention of an attack or the capture of anyone important. There's a moment, too, in the middle of the movie when one of the CIA higher-ups complains that they're spending billions in the war on terror with nothing to show for it, and I thought back over all the horrible dilapidated sheds and cellars in which the mistreatment's been shown to us, and the crudely low tech methods used, and asked myself how on earth they'd managed to spend billions on all that...

If there's a glaring error in the movie, it's in the decision to make it all about one person, Jessica Chastain's CIA analyst Maya. The film-makers have acknowledged that the character's a composite of a variety of CIA officers, and I guess what they were trying to do was use one person to show how the hunt for Bin Laden wore away at a whole nation's conscience and its ideas of what a democracy can do in defence of its principles. But it just left me thinking that the Global War on Terrorism hasn't had that moment yet that WWII had in the 1960 and 70s, when they kept making vast movies like The Longest Day  and A Bridge Too Far, studded with star cameos which showed how these huge struggles involve vast numbers of people working together rather than one star tying it all up with pure charisma. There's nothing wrong with Chastain's performance - or indeed with anyone else's - it's the writing I take issue with. It's not enough that they tried to make a long and twisting campaign by hundreds of experts more relatable by having a single character stand in for a parade; they wrote her as the lone maverick voice who's right all along even though no-one believes her. There's a moment near the final act of the movie when she takes to writing the number of "wasted" days since they've spotted the bin Laden hideout on her boss's window, and I just thought to myself; three days into that, I'd have had her transferred.

The thing is though, that I'd quite like to have seen the movie they originally set out to make. Bin Laden was actually killed during the pre-production of the movie, which Bigelow had originally intended to be about the - at that point - fruitless hunt for Bin Laden. The production had to turn on a dime and reconfigure for a successful manhunt (and find the time and money for a re-enactment of the raid that killed him). It's worth thinking back to The Hurt Locker for a second; there's an utterly absorbing movie which uses a succession of unconnected incidents to show us the reality of a war which never lets up and never seems to resolve to victory, and which Jeremy Renner's character becomes so absorbed in that he can't cope with anything else. If you took away the last forty-five minutes of Zero Dark Thirty, you would have had a perfect complement to The Hurt Locker, as you watched Maya and her team go further and further in the struggle to find Bin Laden, compromising their ideals and their consciences more and more, and ending up with nothing to show for it but the prospect of another ten futile years. That would have been a bleak and uncomfortable movie, but it would, I think, have been a much better film than the one which Bigelow and Boal were forced to make by circumstances far outside their control.

We would, however, have lost the movie's only joke, which comes from a DEVGRU operator looking out a window at the burning wreckage of one of the special ops helos and deadpanning "I forget. Were we MEANT to crash the helo?"

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