Zero Dark Thirty provokes and disturbs

With Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, Jennifer Ehle and Kyle Chandler. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

When is the price for winning a war simply too high to pay? This is the question raised by Zero Dark Thirty, a compelling and disturbing historical thriller by Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow. The film chronicles the lengthy intelligence operation conducted by the CIA to track down Osama bin Laden, whose capture or death was a matter of grave importance to the United States.

The depiction of the hunt for Bin Laden makes for gripping viewing. We largely experience events through the eyes of Jessica Chastain’s character, a CIA operative known only as Maya. Maya has spent her career gathering intelligence on the illusive founder of Al-Qaeda and her single-minded focus on Bin Laden often puts her at odds with her colleagues and superiors. Chastain is excellent in the lead role and succeeds in getting the audience to share her belief in her personal crusade. She reacts with understandable revulsion to the tactics used to gather intelligence but remains steadfast.

The moral quandary posed by Zero Dark Thirty is the film’s most challenging aspect. The interrogation of detainees by an American interrogator named Dan (Jason Clarke) is graphic and hard to watch. It would be hard to argue that the interrogation techniques used by the US government, as depicted in the film, did not amount to torture.

Zero Dark Thirty suspends judgement in this morass of ethical dilemmas and leaves the viewer to make up his or her own mind. It is troubling that the script does not deal more critically with the ethics and actual effectiveness of using torture to extract information, but there is little doubt that the events shown in the film reflect the truth of the situation on the ground. Zero Dark Thirty succeeds in being a technically excellent and gripping military thriller which dramatises a particularly dark period in American and world history.

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