Jonathan Romney on Zero Dark Thirty: Bin Laden hunt opens a whole can of worms

3.00

Bigelow's drama about CIA's search for Osama raises torture, but ducks all the tough questions

Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is a powerful, superbly executed war drama; it's also Exhibit A in the current debate about Hollywood's representation of US foreign policy.

Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (her collaborator on The Hurt Locker) had been preparing a film about the CIA's continuing hunt for Osama bin Laden. Then, in May 2011, the news came that he had been located and killed by US Navy Seals. The film-makers reacted promptly – their drama now ends with a detailed recreation of the raid on Bin Laden's Abbottabad compound in Pakistan.

This makes for an immensely vivid climax to a taut espionage film, but the controversy arises from its earlier content. It is suggested that Bin Laden was found thanks to information extracted by CIA investigators using "enhanced interrogation" methods – torture, that is. The film has been criticised for overstating the usefulness of such methods, and indeed for endorsing torture. Conversely, Bigelow has been praised for making a brave, subtle film that forces its public to confront difficult questions about military expediency.

Zero Dark Thirty is certainly open to interpretation. After a prologue in which we hear recorded voices of people about to die in the 9/11 attacks, we cut to a US base where CIA officials Dan (Jason Clarke) and Maya (Jessica Chastain) are overseeing the interrogation of a prisoner, Ammar (Reda Kateb). Ammar is strung up, waterboarded, stuffed into a box, but almost as shocking as the violence is Dan's flip, macho insouciance: "This is what defeat looks like, bro." Maya, apparently new to the game, initially recoils, but she'll get used to it. As Chastain plays ever more inscrutably hard-boiled behind her aviator shades, the film becomes Maya's apprenticeship in torture – ours, too.

The process seems to pay off: Ammar provides what turns out to be a good lead. In fact, he yields it while the Americans feed him dates at table, now playing nice guys; it's their relaxed chumminess after the brutality that makes their approach all the more shocking. Up to this point, Zero Dark Thirty could be read as a bitter indictment of US tactics.

But as the film progresses, its argument, we sense, is that America is obliged to play hardball. Bigelow chronicles the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel attack, 7/7 in London, and a car bomb that kills some of Maya's colleagues. Zero Dark Thirty now becomes a sort of one-woman revenge story.

We know that Bigelow loves the tough, the determined. The people who command our attention throughout this film are no-bullshit types such as grizzled Dan and Joel Edgerton's Seal commander – men with invisible cheroots jammed in the corners of their mouths. And Bigelow especially identifies with tough women. Maya is the ultimate Bigelow heroine: icy, a living homing device, a woman with an element missing – but that's what makes her a superb agent. She's defined by monomania, absolute certainty, her willingness to confront superiors. When CIA director James Gandolfini is informed about Bin Laden's hideout, she barks: "I'm the motherfucker who found this place – sir!"

Bigelow stands with the unshakeable wills of those with sand on their boots – and against namby-pamby prevaricators behind desks. When an official says, "The President is a thoughtful, analytical guy – he needs proof", that's tantamount to calling him a wuss. At one point, Maya gazes dispassionately at a TV broadcast of Barack Obama saying: "I've said repeatedly that America doesn't torture." But when films show TV clips of politicians, they tend to ironise their words: the implication here is that we're living in a world in which such lofty talk is devalued. Zero Dark Thirty becomes yet another film about America's "loss of innocence", its implicit message: "Look what the world has forced us to become".

In the climactic Abbottabad sequence, Bigelow and cameraman Greig Fraser mesmerisingly orchestrate night vision and darkness, silence and bursts of cacophony. We see terrified children huddling, women shoved aside, men summarily shot dead and, with almost incidental brusqueness, the number-one target being dispatched. It's no big deal, a job done – but sombre strings and a shot of one soldier looking troubled encourage us to ask whether all this was worth it. Finally, a teary-eyed Maya flies home alone, whether upset or exhausted – either way, she's photographed to look iconic, a Madonna of unconditional conviction.

Despite the makers' claims of detachment, of simply recording facts, this stylistically dynamic film doesn't feel detached in any way. Whether or not Bigelow and Boal directly endorse torture, they certainly naturalise it – make it seem a given part of the contemporary world and one that you'd better learn to live with, bro. It's a short skip from there to suggesting that – to paraphrase a recent notorious argument against US gun control – if you're facing bad guys with bombs, then you need good guys with thumbscrews.

Critic's Choice

Two shots of the everyday, two terrific pairs of performances. In The Sessions, John Hawkes plays a disabled man confined to an iron lung who enlists the help of a sex surrogate, Helen Hunt, while Michael Winterbottom's Everyday sees John Simm and Shirley Henderson wrestle with the realities of prison life and families.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker