The story of the capture and assassination of Osama Bin Laden was bound to make it’s way into the cinematic world sooner or later. It is, naturally, the event that the American government may be most proud of during the Obama administration. They ‘defeated’ the enemy. They chucked his body into the ocean, without trial. They are so very proud of this.
Whichever way your opinions fall on the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the (arguably incredibly fictionalised) version of events, Kathryn Bigalow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, has been praised almost unanimously by critics and audiences alike. Visually, it is creative and interesting. It also appeals to the patriotism that is so often seen in American war films, as ultimately ‘the good guys win’. Having watched Zero Dark Thirty only very recently, and having the benefits of a) being able to question the US Government’s version of events and b) having watched a number of interviews which directly contradict the events in Zero Dark Thirty – I have to say, I have a lot of questions.
I am very aware that cinema is fiction. Even documentaries, though claiming to present fact, are works of fiction in many ways. Zero Dark Thirty is a fictional film, but presents a very real event – possibly one of the most important events of the 21st century. The film presents its narrative as fact and purposefully leaves no room to question its message. Jessica Chastain’s character, Maya, is not real but was based on a CIA researcher who was heavily involved in the hunt for Bin Laden.
Let’s start with the positives. Chastain does an excellent job with a very poorly written character. It’s never clear what Maya’s motives are (other than undying patriotism to avenger her country), but Chastain manages to hold interest throughout the film. Visually, it is well shot and though it’s over two hours long, the pacing is impeccable. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, and feels tight and polished. The third act is tense, the lack of any music or score ensuring that we are kept of the edge of our seats. If you can engage with it, that is.
Similarly to The Hurt Locker, Bigalow demonstrates just how adept she is at controlling the visuals, sound and landscape of her films. Everything feels very deliberate, strong and there is no room for error. It mirrors the military/CIA narrative. Sadly, though, I just found Zero Dark Thirty far too war-masturbatory to enjoy it at all. The unequivocal patriotism and unwavering loyalty to destroying America’s ‘enemies’ just did not sit right with me at all.
One part that I found incredibly disturbing was the use of real life news footage from the London bombings in 2005. At best, distasteful and at worst incredibly offensive, the footage was used to merely propel the narrative on within the film – more ammunition as to why they need to find Osama Bin Laden. To use the deaths of real people as a catalyst within the narrative (complete with actual footage from the bombings), I found highly, highly insensitive.
I had the privilege (and I say privilege because it was a fantastic film) of watching ‘Eye in the Sky’ a few months ago. It’s a tense, tight hour and a half thriller which takes us through the chain of command that is activated when considering a drone strike. The subject matter is pretty similar to Zero Dark Thirty, in that a group of white people in Western country get to sit in a room and decide the fate of a group of people they have decided are terrorists. There are definite differences in the films (Zero Dark Thirty is dealing with Al Qaeda, Eye in the Sky is dealing with terrorist activity in Libya). The major difference however is that, although they are technically both fictional films, Eye in the Sky presents us with a situation that we are completely aware is fictional, but implies that this might happen. Zero Dark Thirty presents its narrative as fact.
Not only this, but Eye in the Sky leaves the audience with an uncomfortable taste as it refuses to condone the actions of the British and American governments. Far from triumphing the drone strike as heroic or even necessary action, Eye in the Sky uses the situation to investigate the morality of the strikes. It holds a mirror up to the incompetent UK government, the aggressive US military and the innocent people in faraway countries which get caught up in the conflict.
Compare this to the actions of the SEALS in Zero Dark Thirty, in particular the scene where they discover the children in Bin Laden’s house. The SEALS have just massacred the parents of these children, and their reaction is to tell the children ‘It’s okay now, everything is going to be okay now”. In other words, everything will be fine, the white man has arrived to save the day. It could be that Bigalow is criticizing the white saviour mentality by inserting such an insensitive piece of dialogue, but I doubt it. The entire last part of the film ramps up the tension – we are really supposed to want Maya and the seals to succeed. We understand how much is riding on this (actually, just mostly Maya’s credibility as a CIA agent) and the entire sequence feels like patriotism on speed. Are we supposed to enjoy watching Pakistani’s being murdered in cold blood? Are they guilty by association? Are we supposed to applaud them?
It’s also telling that, throughout the entire film, we only see the effects of terrorists attacks in Pakistan from a white American perspective. Never mind that Al Qaeda and the Pakistani government had been waging war on it’s own people for years. The first terrorist attack we see targets a restaurant where Maya and her friend are eating dinner, the second is a calculated attack on the military base. In both instances, the only victims discussed are the Americans. Particularly evident in the restaurant attack, we watch Maya and Jessica escape through the kitchen but there is no sense of the Pakistani victims. In fact, Zero Dark Thirty pretty much equates all ‘brown people’ as terrorists, similarly to another US war film in the last few years – American Sniper.
Just as UK and the US had (and still have) no second thought for the people who inhabit the countries that we strike daily with bombs and drones, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t want to think about the people in Pakistan, those who were equally and more so affected by the rise of the Taliban. Zero Dark Thirty has nothing interesting or new to say about the conflict. It merely reiterates imperialist propaganda which has been preached by the media and governments alike, in favour of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberation’. But much like the story told in Zero Dark Thirty, it’s all a pack of lies.