Zero Dark Thirty

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

27 December

Benazir Bhutto assassinated, 2007

On this day in 2007, Benazir Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party and a former Prime Minister of Pakistan, died in a bomb attack at a political rally in Rawalpindi. She was campaigning in the upcoming general election. A glamorous figure in Pakistani politics, she was the daughter of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and had been elected Prime Minister at the age of 35, in 1989, the first woman to lead a Muslim country. Though because of the presidential system, Bhutto was constantly in a struggle for executive power with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who eventually dismissed her government. She was elected again in 1993, survived a coup d’état by renegade military officers in 1995, only to be dismissed again by the president (now Farooq Leghari) in 1996, on the grounds of corruption. She had returned only in 2007 after a period of self-exile, after coming to an understanding with President Pervez Musharraf that the corruption charges against her would be dropped. She arrived back in Pakistan on 18 October and there was an immediate attempt on her life, by a suicide bomber who killed 136 people and injured 450. On 8 December three gunmen attacked Bhutto’s office and killed three of her supporters. On 27 December, while standing up through the sunroof of her bulletproof car to wave to crowds after leaving a political rally, she was shot by a gunman and at the same time explosives were detonated. She died shortly afterwards, most likely as a result of head trauma caused by the blast. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility, though the Bhutto family has always maintained that Musharraf was aware of an impending attack by the Taliban but failed to pass on this knowledge to Bhutto’s protectors.

Zero Dark Thirty (2012, dir: Kathryn Bigelow)

“A lot of my friends have died trying to do this; I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.” The key line of dialogue spoken by Jessica Chastain around halfway through Kathryn Bigelow’s long film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden contains the film’s key word – spared. It’s biblical, from the account of the Passover. In the character of Pakistan-based CIA operative Maya (Chastain) – who believes Bin Laden is probably hiding in Pakistan in plain sight – we have the obsessive on the hunt for the fanatic, the leader of a one-woman holy war, a crusader against a jihadist. If screenplay writer Mark Boal is suggesting that the West too has become fanatical in its insistence on spreading its values around the world, he’s saying it by the mere existence of Maya. Look for any more critical political perspective and you’ll have to work for it – whether the use of torture is justified, ethically and practically, is introduced as an idea, then dropped fairly quickly, for example. These odd fleeting moments apart, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a film of nuance – the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad and that’s the end of it. Though it looks like a spy procedural – director Kathryn Bigelow has fully digested the lessons learned from the Bourne films – it is in fact a war movie. Context, history, realpolitik, they’re all pretty much absent, much as they were in Bigelow’s Iraq movie, The Hurt Locker, which also focused on the guys fighting the war rather than the war itself. Which is not to say it isn’t impressive – in the way it slowly and carefully introduces key players (in particular a brilliantly authoritative Jennifer Ehle – who’d have thought she was once Mr Darcy’s prim English love object in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice), in the way that it establishes story arcs that run for the decade it covers, from Maya’s first introduction and her bratty assessment of the situation – “Pakistan’s kinda fucked up” – to her increasing obsession with finding Bin Laden and her loss of comrades on the way. And finally, as we enter the home strait – showtime – we realise we have been carefully introduced to the Navy Seals who are eventually going to infiltrate Bin Laden’s compound at night, shooting as they go, in an extended 25 minute sequence which is impressive not only because it makes you catch your breath for the duration, but because it also has the real ring of truth about it.

Why Watch?

  • It engages with the controversy about evidence gained by torture
  • Its strong cast includes Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini
  • Jessica Chastain carries the entire movie
  • The raid itself – surely the most convincing ever filmed

Zero Dark Thirty – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2013

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