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Zero Dark Thirty: a cinematic portrait of a nation's obsession with the War on Terror

In The World on War, we travel around the globe and investigate how armed conflict influences a country's popular culture and its representation of war in film.

Zero Dark Thirty opens with a minute of darkness. Swirling telephone chatter engulfs the viewer, and as the white noise clears the horror and desperation becomes apparent. "September 11, 2001". The events of this day are not recreated on screen; the wounds are fresh enough that emergency call recordings are all that is necessary. This is not exploitation, this is American history.

What follows is a relentless account of events detailing the decade-long manhunt that took place in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, anchored by the efforts of one woman at the centre of it. Billed as the "story of history's greatest manhunt for the world's most dangerous man", Zero Dark Thirty is the story of America's obsession with the Middle East.

Born from the ashes of a scrapped project director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal began collaborating on after 2008’s The Hurt Locker, the original picture detailed the Battle of Tora Bora and the coalition’s subsequent failure to capture Bin Laden. This completed screenplay was made redundant on May 2, 2011, when President Obama announced to the world that the United States had killed Osama Bin Laden. The resulting urgency required to produce a timely yet noteworthy picture (with a turnaround just shy of 20 months) is integral to the film, working its way into the character of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA officer tasked with gathering intelligence relating to the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden.

This timeliness was something of a double-edged sword. While critics responded overwhelmingly postitively to Bigelow and Boal's ruthless pursuit of the truth, audiences were not quite as accepting. Discussion of the film's artistic merits were quickly derailed as the focus shifted to the depiction of torture in the film's early scenes. Allegations of both a pro-torture and anti-American agenda came in equal quantities from both sides of the political divide, and before long the film was known to many as just "the torture movie".

For all the divisive responses to the depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty, the film is notable for its unflinching portrayal of a non-partisan version of events. Every detail of the film, including the depiction of torture, is shown only for what it is, without a hint of exploitation. For every plot point taken out of context and used as evidence of a pro-torture agenda there is another that screams anti-torture. In the film’s latter half, after the use of torture has been abolished through the Detainee Treatment Act, a senior CIA supervisor (Mark Strong) makes the case that the CIA has been neutered and is no longer able to gather information. Yet the vast majority of information that leads to the eventual capture and execution of Bin Laden is uncovered in this post-torture world through non-violent means. The CIA supervisor is simply told that he will “think of something”; this is exactly what Maya does.

The discussion surrounding Zero Dark Thirty and the reaction from audiences is as much a part of the film’s narrative as the story itself. A desire to ignore the film became apparent as the months wore on. Released in the same year as Ben Affleck’s Argo, a film with similar subject matter but one which arguably lent more toward American patriotism, Zero Dark Thirty went by relatively unnrecognised outside of critics’ polls during awards season. Argo went on to win Best Picture at the 2012 Academy Awards, while Zero Dark Thirty‘s sole win was for Sound Editing (one it shared with Skyfall).

Boal and Bigelow presented to America a version of events as close to fact as possible (the film was originally marketed as a piece of journalism rather than a work of fiction), and America clearly did not appreciate what they saw. They were shown a portrait of a woman driven by obsession, so consumed by her task that it becomes something more than personal for her.

At a turning point in the film, Maya’s colleague Jessica is killed in a terror attack on a CIA compound while pursuing a lead. Until this point Maya has made it very clear that she has no interest in making friends.  In death Jessica takes on a more important role. Although their relationship had certainly developed into something resembling a friendship, the attack that takes Jessica’s life solidifies this. In a later scene, a photo of the two of them together is seen as Maya’s desktop background. Her relationship with Jessica has taken on a new significance as it allows her hunt for Bin Laden to become personal.

“A lot of my friends have died trying to do this,” Maya later states out of desperation, in a last ditch attempt to convince another CIA operative to help her capture a Bin Laden associate. But both Maya and her friend are only in this situation as a result of their own obsessions. Earlier in the film, after almost 5 years stationed in the Middle East, Maya is given an out by her superior (Jason Clarke). He gives her an opportunity to come back to Washington, to leave her obsession with Bin Laden behind and move on with her life. Maya declines. She may not have volunteered for this mission, but she has chosen to stay with it.

Maya’s obsession with Bin Laden is the embodiment of America’s involvement in the War on Terror. There is no arguing that this obsession was not without merit; the horrific white noise that opens the film is evidence enough. In the film’s final scene, Maya sits alone in a military aircraft dedicated solely to her transportation. At the only point in which Maya, and by extension Bigelow and Boal, allows herself a moment of restrained emotion, a question is posed. “Where do you wanna go?” There is no answer.

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