Mental Anguish and Professional Duty Take Centre Stage in Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

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The decade long manhunt for elusive terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden by American forces was ready-made fodder for a rich screenplay. Kathryn Bigelow sets the record straight in Zero Dark Thirty, for a thrilling recreation of that definitive run-up to the May 2011 midnight raid in Abbotabad, Pakistan. It was a historic indictment of global terrorism that spreads its tentacles and was a victory lap for American intelligence and military one-upmanship to reckon with. The veracity of that event may still seem too good to be true but the toil and dogged resolve of one woman at the heart of its execution is a true stand-out. Jessica Chastain puts on a brave front here as CIA intelligence agent Maya, the unsung hero who dedicated the most challenging years of her portfolio to head this mission.

Dead-ends, red herrings and hardcore fundamentalist assets mire her proactive efforts to bring Laden to book for his central role in the 9/11 attacks. Bigelow opens the movie with an almost minute and a half black screen audio grab of 9/11 survivors and witnesses, in all its bare-bones reverberations of bemused tempers and unadulterated horror. It’s an effective ploy to contextualise a nation’s— and in turn society’s— protracted war on terror since that betokened moment in time. Maya oversees this social churning.

The situation gets stoked almost immediately as her camera follows the entrails of a secret hideout somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Pakistan where the strong-willed Maya witnesses a terrorist’s grisly interrogation by her senior (steely Jason Clarke, using the menace in his eyes to great effect). Her momentary shock and flinching nature are soon traded in for heavy duty confrontations with Laden’s network of operatives. Every step that she takes towards her final destination is fraught with challenges of failure and death staring her in the face, not to forget hostile opponents within an alien culture who play at the hands of the manipulative and covert ISI to counter CIA’s leads.

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Instrumental incidents like the Marriott hotel bombing in Islamabad, the Camp Chapman attack—headlines that screamed at us from front pages, are wisely incorporated into the tensile proceedings and, in turn, heighten the bulk of Mark Boal’s ingenuously determined curve in terms of his script-writing skills. Having previously collaborated on The Hurt Locker together, Bigelow and Boal are well-versed with surly crises that come with the territory in war-torn locations. In that way, post 9/11 prattle and diplomatic white noise are dispensed with, to keep the focus on the nail-biting suspense that initiates our responses, right from the very first frame. Our hitherto unknown knowledge about torture techniques like ‘waterboarding’ gather steam and give credence to the oft-repeated stance that ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’.

In a sense, Maya’s inner grit at chasing her leads almost goes head to head with the kind of radicalism practised by her detractors. A turning point in the plot emerges when her fellow agent and friend’s (Jennifer Ehle) life is claimed in the infamous Camp Chapman blow-out. This imbues her with a ‘fire in the belly’ tactic. Yet there’s a restraint in Jessica Chastain’s performance that is bound to invite divisive viewpoints. That’s the training she received and the nature of her portfolio, to not buckle under pressure. To a layman, it’s hard to reconcile with this steely determination. Bigelow goes on to look at mechanics of the Abottabad mission as collected and brought to fruition by her and keeps Maya’s trajectory on that single count straight and unwavering, to the point of being ‘overtly disciplined’, if we may put it this way, from the prism of a common observer. Claire Danes’ turn as an impassioned CIA agent in Homeland has opened floodgates on the brilliance of the artistic medium and her singular performance touched raw nerves of her mental decrepitude to a T. The explicit overlapping of mental anguish and professional acumen on simultaneous scales is missing here. Bigelow internalises those points in Maya and her team’s reserve and strength of mind. We must understand that individual hands separate one representation from the other as is the case with Maya’s even-tempered handling of her situation. She doesn’t warrant being compared to another person.

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The ambience created here reaches a point of thematic validation in the nail-biting though hushed vision of that final showdown in Abbotabad. These haunting moments trace the intimately bracing David vs Goliath battle of wits, transpiring under the pall of night vision cameras. A lean physicality pervades and leaves no stone un-turned in connecting us with Maya’s omnipresence. She is not part of the all-male contingent of soldiers who barge into the lair of world’s most wanted man but maintains a precision in manning all their moves on the ground.

It’s the final shot that’s worth all consideration. Seated on the aircraft bound to fly her back home, her tear-streaked face and mute silence as the lone passenger. There is a collective toll the fight for justice has taken on her over all these years. Miss Chastain upholds Maya’s innate humanity in that scene and a hint of enfranchisement in having proved her mettle amongst a male-dominant order. She then opts to adopt an anonymous line once the ends are met. As if agents are ghost figures existing in enigmatic spaces within our world driven by so many anti-social elements.

Zero Dark Thirty is a blistering tribute to the honour of that woman whose consistency came out on top even when thrust into the most vitiated war-field.

Zero Dark Thirty is available to rent on VOD

by Prithvijeet Sinha

Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow, India. A regular contributor to Screen Queens, he lives for the beauty of poetry in moving images and translates them into stirring writings in verse and prose. He is also a dedicated cinephile. 

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