January 11, 2013 • 09:53:10 a.m.

Review: Difficult torture scenes scar otherwise brilliant ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

By JEFFREY WESTHOFF – planitnews@shawmedia.com

This undated publicity film image provided by Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. shows Jessica Chastain playing a member of the elite team of spies and military operatives stationed in a covert base overseas who secretly devoted themselves to finding Osama Bin Laden in Columbia Pictures' gripping new thriller directed by Kathryn Bigelow, "Zero Dark Thirty." (Photo provided)

"Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo” will compete against each other as best picture nominees at next month’s Oscars.

Maybe it is a reflection of our times that two fact-based accounts of the CIA dealing with the aftermath of Islamic fundamentalism should register so strongly with the public consciousness, particularly since a wave of similar, though fictional, films bombed at the box office only a few years ago.

“Argo,” which is set during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, goes easy on our national conscience with the CIA aiming to save lives. “Zero Dark Thirty” is more morally troubling, as it should be.

Kathryn Bigelow’s account of the search for Osama bin Laden has generated controversy, deservedly so, for its depiction of torture, but another issue often goes overlooked. During the hunt for bin Laden, it is never in question that the object is to kill the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks, not to capture him and put him on trial. Few had qualms about this determination, yet it goes against the very heart of the American judicial system, the belief that a person is innocent until proved guilty in a court of law. Why make an exception for bin Laden and his co-conspirators (many of whom have been killed in drone strikes)?

Bigelow answers that question in the film’s opening seconds. A black screen is accompanied by frantic 911 calls from people trapped in the World Trade Center, and in just a few seconds memories of that terrifying morning come sweeping back. Such a monstrous crime disrupted our sense of justice.

The story begins two years after the 9/11 attack as a freshly recruited CIA officer identified as Maya (Jessica Chastain) joins the bin Laden manhunt. It is an ugly start as Maya watches a fellow CIA officer (Jason Clarke) roughly question a suspect at one of the agency’s black sites in Saudi Arabia. The interrogation soon turns to waterboarding. Maya is visibly uncomfortable with the violence but refuses to leave the cell. Several years later Maya has become so inured to torture that she doesn’t hesitate to tell a strong-arm man to punch a suspect in the face.

“Zero Dark Thirty” has been accused of glamorizing torture or cheerleading the CIA’s use of it. Not so. These scenes are horrifying to watch, especially when you realize our government is carrying out this brutality. To present this story without acknowledging CIA torture would be whitewashing history.

Where Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal err is that they remain uncritical of torture. They present it as a necessary evil that led to discovering bin Laden’s hideout. Yet many experts, including those within the CIA, believe that the agency’s lust for torture post-9/11 may have prolonged the manhunt with myriad false confessions. Those voices go unheard in “Zero Dark Thirty,” and that is a disservice to history.

The only anti-torture voice belongs to newly elected President Obama in 2008. Maya and another CIA officer, played by Jennifer Ehle, scoff during a televised interview when Obama declares the United State will no longer torture. Later a high-ranking CIA executive complains to a White House official that Obama has made their job harder by ending “enhanced interrogations.”

Even with its problematic depiction of torture, “Zero Dark Thirty” succeeds brilliantly as a procedural film and ranks among the genre’s greatest, from “Naked City” to David Fincher’s “Zodiac.” For the first two hours of its running time, “Zero” is essentially a detective story, and Bigelow and Boal illustrate the many dead ends Maya follows, from the merely frustrating to the tragic.

Chastain is dynamite as the flint-hearted professional who remains a true believer even as the CIA brass grow weary of the hunt for “UBL” (the CIA identify him as “Usuma”). Chastain’s character is partially based on part on a real female CIA officer whose identity remains classified, but in many ways Maya fits the profile of the obsessive heroes who populate Bigelow’s films. It is also fair to guess that some of the character is based on Bigelow herself, a tough-minded director who has survived for decades in the male-dominated industry.

Many of Bigelow’s early films are overrated, but she finally lived up to her reputation when she teamed up with journalist-turned-screenwriter Boal for “The Hurt Locker” and became the first woman to win the best director Oscar. Bigelow and Boal clicked into the military mindset, which is a major reason the climax to “Zero Dark Thirty,” the Navy Seals’ raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is so absorbing.

Where the finale of “Argo” has largely been fabricated to drive up suspense, the finale of “Zero Dark Thirty” is probably the film’s most accurate segment as well as its most suspenseful, even though we know the outcome. Every second of the raid is a white-knuckle moment. The mission begins with a disaster, one of the two specialized helicopters crashes, and threatens to fall apart several times after that. The training and dedication of the Seals are awe-inspiring.

The only unconvincing element is that the members of Seal Team Six, led by Joel Edgerton, are a bit pudgier than the real Navy Seals who starred in “Act of Valor.”

Throughout the film, many familiar faces appear in small roles, including Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Mark Strong, John Barrowman and Chris Pratt. James Gandolfini plays an unnamed CIA director, but he is obviously Leon Panetta.

And though Osama bin Laden ostensively is the focus of the story, he remains mostly a phantom, a figure glimpsed fleetingly in the final minutes. Only when bin Laden is dead do we see the face of the actor playing him, Ricky Sekhon.

To Bigelow, the person of Osama bin Laden is less important than the drive to punish him for his enormous crime. “Zero Dark Thirty” would be a better film if Bigelow and Boal more openly questioned whether the methods used to mete out that justice were worthy of America, but even in its failings, this is a gripping, almost necessary, piece of filmmaking.

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