In September of the year 2001, New York City, the twin towers of The World Trade Center were attacked by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, destroying them and killing over three thousand people. The Pentagon was also attacked, and because the United States secret service had not seen this coming they were left not merely embarrassed, but excoriated for their security errors and oversights. This made it all the more imperative that the C.I.A. got their act together and not only brought the conspirators to justice, but ensured it never happened again, and part of that meant taking in the mastermind they believed was behind the tragedy - Osama bin Laden.
Well, that was the history lesson you were being told in Zero Dark Thirty at any rate, a recreation of the top secret events which led up to the assassination of bin Laden some ten years or so after the Twin Towers were knocked down. It was originally going to be about how the search had proven futile, but then the target was actually found which meant producer and screenwriter Mark Boal had a lot of rewriting to do, thereby changing what some would have seen as a left wing critique of the failiure of the C.I.A. to what others saw as a right wing endorsement of that organisation's methods. They really couldn't win, and the end product took flak from both sides.
For a start the C.I.A. rejected the film's depiction of its techniques as pure fiction, and that was specifically the movie version's use and endorsement of torture which our mysterious lead character Maya (Jessica Chastain) takes part in and accepts is necessary. That they had admitted to waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, to get information but didn't consider it torture tended to paint them as on the defensive, but then the liberal end of the political spectrum began complaining they felt Zero Dark Thirty was backing torture as a way to win the War on Terror, though yet more defended the movie and its director Kathryn Bigelow, now very visible, by pointing out the torture we saw delivered precisely nothing of use.
So it was safe to say a movie with this subject matter was never going to please everybody, and that's the way it played out: some said the issues it raised torpedoed its chances for the Oscar that went to the far less murky Argo. But all credit to Bigelow and Boal, they did render this shadowy and complicated, making it surprising the C.I.A. were able to get anything right as the terrorist attacks continued and the American foreign policy simply seemed to get more and more people killed, and not necessarily anyone guilty of the crimes they were seeking to prevent. If anything the film had one clear sight of an agenda in the secret services, and that was one of coldhearted vengeance, which was why they were so determined not to put bin Laden on trial.
Nope, they wanted him dead, not only for his crimes but for the boost it would give morale back home and in the military around the world, both American and her allies'. In the person of Maya, we have a "this time it's personal" tone, particularly when we see her friends in the business succumb to terrorism, though we find out very little about her otherwise, which risked making her a cypher. In fact, in conception and execution Maya made the movie reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs, with Chastain often shown on the screen surrrounded by men taller than she is, and struggling to make her voice heard among an overwhelmingly masculine world, both in the aggressors she is fighting and the colleagues she refuses to be intimidated by. It makes for an interesting twist on what could have been gung ho, except that made you wonder who it was intended to appeal to apart from the gung ho brigade as it led up to the killing of a man who might not have been half as relevant to the fight against global terror as the Americans needed to make out, a point not ignored. Music by Alexandre Desplat.
After a starting her career as an artist, this American director and writer moved into the world of film, making her first feature The Loveless in 1982. Five years later came the film which made her name, the modern vampire tale Near Dark, and she followed it up with equally cult-ish thrillers Blue Steel, Point Break and Strange Days. However, The Weight of Water and K-19: The Widowmaker were critical and financial failures, and she fell quiet until Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker over five years later, for which she became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar. She then dramatised the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the controversial Zero Dark Thirty. She was once married to fellow director James Cameron, and directed episodes of Wild Palms and Homicide: Life on the Street.