Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Oscars 2013: Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty (U.S., 2012) directed by Kathryn Bigelow, 157 minutes
Nominated for Five Oscars
Best Actress In a Leading Role
Best Picture
Best Film Editing
Best Sound Editing
Best Writing (Original Screenplay) 

This film is a double edged sword … either  advocating torture as a means to extract information from enemies (leading to the discovery and killing of Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda) or demonstrating how barbaric it is and counter to the democratic values that Americans purport to hold.  

Is it ever right to torture if it elicits information that will lead to the mastermind of the death of many innocent people – such as Osama bin Laden, following the devastating 9-11 attacks. The answer appears to be sometimes … maybe ... possibly.

The Maya character in the film (Jessica Chastain) is said to be a composite of two female CIA officers Alfreda Frances Bikowsky and Michael Anne Casey. There is an strange deficit of info on Bikowsky in the mainstream press but if you google her name it pops up in many blogs, non-profit news websites and conspiracy websites (such as Boiling Frogs Post) which makes the reader nervous about the truth surrounding this mythical "Maya".

In the film, Maya has been reassigned to the U.S. embassy in Pakistan to work at a "black site" in 2003 and assist her superior Dan (Jason Clarke) in the interrogation of one Ammar, suspected of links to Saudi terrorists. Eventually a name is revealed, an “Abu Ahmed”, who is rumoured to work as a personal courier for bin Laden.

The torture scenes are really gut wrenching and thoroughly realistic – water torture, near drowning, verbal and emotional humiliation, starvation, beatings – and to director Bigelow’s credit we see the experience through Maya’s eyes. She is both repulsed but determined to find out the information she needs. But it is ugly, truly and sickening ugly, to observe.

Bigelow never shies away from disturbing scenes – her work seems to get grittier and more complex as her career evolves. She seems to have an unerring and sympathetic eye for the men and women involved in these sometimes morally dubious paths in the military. 

In the script, co-written by Bigelow, Maya is portrayed as dedicated and fanatical in her pursuit and also a little obnoxious and possibly slightly unhinged. Likely these traits are softened somewhat by Chastain’s beauty in the viewing. I wonder how the film would be received if the Maya character was less photogenic?

Using masses of data, technology, and information gleaned from detainees, Maya focuses on finding Abu Ahmed even though intell surfaces that Ahmed is dead, possibly as early as 2001. It’s a long and difficult road for our protagonist with Maya surviving the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing in 2008 and being shot at in her car by armed men. Maya's fellow CIA officer and friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) is not as lucky – she is killed in the Camp Chapman attack in 2009.

A fellow analyst researching intelligence archives suggests to Maya that Abu Ahmed is actually Ibrahim Sayeed and reports of his death are actually related to the death of one of his many brothers. Under Maya’s direction and urging, CIA operatives are deployed to identify this man whom they track, by cellphone, to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, near the national military academy.

The compound is under surveillance for several months but the CIA cannot prove definitively that bin Laden lives there. Top CIA officials, when pressed, will only admit to the White House that there is a 60-80% probability that bin Laden is present, Maya’s cocky response when asked: “100%”. 

A plan is devised to use two stealth helicopters to secretly enter Pakistan with a U.S. Navy SEAL team to raid the compound. "Zero Dark Thirty" is military slang for an unspecified time in the early hours of the morning before dawn - when this raid occurred.  

No matter what Maya's competency is, she is still described as "the girl", within earshot, and without the slightest hint of inappropriateness on the part of the senior officials she deals with. It's not difficult to understand her combativeness and often prickly behavior to her fellow agents and superiors. 

The money shot, of course, is the killing of bin Laden on May 2, 2011 by presidential executive order. The sequence appears to be shot in near real time and does not shy away from the brutality of shooting a woman who happens to get in the way of the raid and terrifying a dozen children in the middle of the night. It may seem odd to say this but the actual shooting of bin Laden is sensitively done - less graphic than one would imagine, more mindful of the outrage such a scene could summon some viewers.

The politics aside, and I have a real issue with the killing of America’s sworn enemies without trial or the rule of law, this episode will provide only a short term relief to Americans and their billion dollar campaign to route out terrorism. However, this film has made the tortuous path to this momentous historical event an emotionally involving and rewarding cinematic experience. 
The Navy Seal team outside bin Laden's compound

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