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Exploring darkness and secrecy
The difficulty with films that describe themselves as “based on real events” is that, unless the viewer takes an inappropriately scholarly approach to his evening’s entertainment, there is no way of telling how much of the story is factual and how much invented for dramatic effect.
The Bible is probably the earliest creative work that presented this particular problem, as its huge spectrum of interpretation, from mystical Catholicism to mumbo-jumbo Mormonism, reflects.
The task is even more difficult when the “real events” can indeed be revealed—but only if the person to whom they are disclosed is immediately killed. If Kathryn Bigelow’s 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty, were a “true story,” then, and not one “based on real events,” every member of the popcorn-crunching audiences all over the non-Islamic world would need a level of security clearance that most of the real people in the film did not themselves have.
Even the title reflects the murky waters into which Bigelow waded in trying to trace the hunt for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, from the time of the 9/11 attacks until his execution/murder in May 2011.
“Zero dark thirty” is an American military term for 30 minutes past zero hour, or midnight (the “dark” presumably crept in to distinguish the time from half-past midday, “zero light thirty).”
Bigelow’s own explanation for the replacement of the film’s working title, For God and Country, is that the military term also encompasses the darkness and secrecy covering the mission.
For most of the film’s production schedule, too, there was no contemplation of any dramatic resolution of the nature provided by the real-life killing of bin Laden by US Navy Seals in Pakistan two years ago.
Given that deep murkiness in subject-matter, theme and approach, it is a startling measure of the film’s success that one can make the clear statement that the film is not political (or, at the very least, completely breaks free from its political tethers). This is a film that an open-minded Muslim could not just watch, untroubled, but enjoy (or at least as much as one can be said to enjoy a violent war film).
Zero Dark Thirty escapes what ought to have been the easy denunciation as American propaganda by its honest grappling with the more difficult part of what is really an equilateral equation: the American side of the evil. From its opening scenes, the film does not sidestep the torture which that good Christian, President George W Bush, considered the first tool of interrogation. (Nor does it shrink from the reality that the work of the film’s protagonists was made far more difficult by President Obama’s insistence, upon election, that the USA did not torture prisoners; such artistic honesty puts the independence into the classification of “independent” film.)
The remainder of the film’s ability to rise above (or at least not be bogged down in) its own political, cultural, religious and racial mire is due to its technical mastery. The tension levels created by Bigelow (from a strong script by Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal) ranks with the underwater battles of Das Boot.
The claustrophobic atmosphere is reminiscent of 127 Hours. Even Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid is recalled in how easily the length of the chase itself is forgotten, so wrapped up is the viewer in the telling of the tale.
The performances, particularly of Jessica Chastain in the lead, are exceptional (though only the Golden Globes actually gave her the Best Lead Actress for which she was nominated by almost everyone).
But technical mastery is the least one would expect from a filmmaker who won the Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Film Editing, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing Oscars for her first war film, The Hurt Locker. (Zero Dark itself shared the Best Sound Editing Oscar with Skyfall last Sunday night, and was nominated in almost all the same categories.)
What makes Zero Dark Thirty a film worth seeing more than once, therefore, is its depth, not the murkiness of the waters in, and into, which it treads.
Starting with only the tip of the iceberg the world can see, Bigelow, Boal and Chastain between them create what seems to be an entirely true picture of the woman behind the hunt, the single individual with the persistence to find the most well-hidden target on the planet.
Assuming, of course, that one accepts that those two particular bits of the plot, the huntress, and the outcome of the hunt, are based on real events.
Zero Dark Thirty/Kathryn Bigelow/2012/157 mins/Drama-History-Thriller/Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images and for language.
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