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Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow. The assassination of a terrorist


Where is he?


Zero Dark Thirty – Kathryn Bigelow

Lincoln could be described as portraying the unprincipled pursuit of a principled objective, in conflict with the principled pursuit of an unprincipled end. It is a tragic lesson of history that when old men possessed of power talk with passion about principles – young people die.

No such moral ambiguities, ethical disputes or manipulation of legality and due process clouds the stark, brutal, unquestioned and unexamined realities that drive Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant, extraordinary, deeply disturbing film. Zero is a totally ethics-free zone: the State assassination of an enemy on foreign soil is taken as a given: no specious claim to legitimacy here; no queasy efforts to morally justify the ethically indefensible.

Moral philosophy and political theory naively used to debate the ethics of the hypothetical assassination of Hitler early in the war – before millions had died. Zero expresses the almost universally held view, clearly shared by President Obama, that the murder of Usama Bin Laden by military forces of the United States was a simple undeniable necessity created by the events of the 11th of September 2001. Standing in no need of further justification.

The sheer, in-your-face unapologetic directness of Bigelow’s film is in my view both brave and chillingly honest: ‘this man had to die; and this is how we first found and then killed him’. It is deeply ironic that the controversy the film has generated is so irrelevant: if you accept without demur the principle of State assassination as an end why get in such a prurient tiz about a little ‘enhanced interrogation’ – or torture as we simple souls call it – on the way? The widespread tacit acceptance around the world of these hitherto rejected means and ends of policy, formally and unequivocally barred by the United Nations, is amply demonstrated by the just published list of over 50 countries which actively co-operated with the US CIA policy of extreme rendition whereby kidnapped, uncharged suspects were imprisoned, detained and/or tortured at the behest of the United States in an effort to glean information that might help the unspeakable George Bush in his personal Crusade to wage his self-justifying ‘War on Terror’.

Zero Dark Thirty depicts an unswerving, implacable hunt to the death of a single human prey. Simply as an objective, relevant fact Bigelow shows us that this 10 year journey was regularly mile-stoned with further post-9/11 terrorist outrages including the London Bombings of the 7th of July 2005. She draws us deeply into the profoundly amoral world of Intelligence where every lethal event is pathologised to yield fragments of information which are assiduously assembled in the hope of finding a thread of connection that might lead towards the whereabouts of the most hated and most wanted human being on the planet.

Jessica Chastain plays Maya: based apparently on a real figure, a CIA agent committed to the point of obsession with finding Usama Bin Laden, or ‘UBL’ as he is efficiently abbreviated, so that she can have him killed. Maya is a bit like a female Jason Bourne – who didn’t need the brainwashing to be unquestioningly committed to the cause. How true is Bigelow’s sub-text of Maya and senior colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) constantly being thwarted and under-estimated by the political and operational indecisive wariness of senior CIA men above them? I don’t know – but it plays. Bigelow’s CIA is machocentric, political, incestuous and distinctly ‘corporate’ in its operational style; it kidnaps, bribes, detains and yes, tortures with the alacrity of established practice unrestrained by law or operational procedure. However, whether through guilt or reluctant sensibility, prisoners are driven out of their minds, out of sight.

Sorting apparently unconnected little beads of information Maya threads them together into a narrative that she believes leads to one of the many couriers who helped to sustain UBL in his overall control of Al-Qaeda networks around the world and to guard the secret of his whereabouts. Convinced that UBL could not actively control from a cave, a terrorist network with all the demands of communication that implied, when her tenuous trail of events leads to a secret compound in Pakistan visited by her suspected courier, her belief that they are closing in on UBL becomes an absolute conviction. But it takes over 100 days to convince her bosses to persuade the President to authorize an attack. Only here and solely by implication, do we sense any thought that the mission to assassinate UBL within the borders of an ally they dare not trust, is in any sense problematic. Mind you, as Bigelow shows it; this seems more a fear of the monumentally embarrassing cock-up that would ensue if UBL wasn’t there, than any doubts about the justification in killing him if he was.

Bigelow’s austerely edited build up through the process of assembling and investigating the clues to UBL’s location is as tense and absorbing as any detective story, all the more so because we know most of the facts and events depicted actually happened. Maya’s inference that apparently innocuous patterns of behaviour by her suspected courier were so excessively methodical that they suggested intelligence ‘tradecraft’ rather than innocent actions is convincing and exciting.

Knowing the facts of history does not detract from the pace and suspense of the hunt. The actual attack is simply a tour-de-force: a bravura display of restrained film-making evocatively lit by infra-red head lamps and all the sinister profiles created by the high-tech equipment the modern special ops soldier carries. It is the quiet stealth and shafting laser lights with which the assault is conducted that chills the soul and races the heart. In the obscene terminology of modern warfare we see the ‘collateral damage’ of unprovoked death and cries of terrified women and children during the attack and desperate search to locate Bin Laden. Whether this graphically honest film cheats at the critical point I suppose we’ll never know but we only become aware that Bin Laden has been killed after the event – there is an ambiguity about the precise moment and circumstances though responsibility is immediately attributed to a particular individual. One also wonders whether the quiet restraint of the soldiers is true to the facts – but certainly this way of depicting the events does credit to Bigelow’s sensibilities.

Zero Dark Thirty is a superb, thrilling film that convinces us not least through its quasi-documentary style, that if this was not exactly what things were like, it is very much like how they must have been. It has an air of authenticity hard to doubt. Performances, especially from Chastain and Jason Clarke are scarily convincing. To what extent Zero is a kind of visual form of what used to be called in literature ‘faction’ I don’t know.

If Zero Dark Thirty is recognised at this year’s Oscars, my instinctive view that such subjects are better dealt with through a genuine documentary treatment may be reinforced. But this moral and aesthetic ambivalence; the blurring of fact and fiction; and especially reality and myth – is aesthetically endemic to Hollywood – it’s what they do; just as it is politically to the way the American people like to think of themselves. In this Zero is not in spirit and intent, as far away from Lincoln as it might at first seem.

Controversially, Usama Bin Laden was code-named ‘Geronimo’ in the operation to kill him.

“Justice Has Been Served”
(President Obama on the killing of Usama Bin Laden)

Vengeance is mine
sayeth the horde
Revenge is sweet
so sweet they cry
Other-blind, their Jesus tears
must be avenged
for them alone mere justice
will not satisfy

Outnumber, outgun, cast out
a virtual mythology
dispenses real-blood death
No Jedi here, nor Samurai
the overwhelming Force
is with them and
honour, truth, their faith in law
bends to expeditious lie

In its blood-stained birth
This Achillean state
was, is, will ever be
deaf to Hector’s plea
Just because you can
does not demand you must
in Kabul, Baghdad and Saigon
or even Wounded Knee

When faith is blind
in any name or creed
to the blood of innocence
or turns its deafened ears
to the unsolaced truthful cries
of other hearts, of other minds
their pain will go unrecognised
and echo down the years

‘Not in my name’ Jesus weeps
‘nor mine’ the Prophet says
force of arms democracy
is just Manifest Destiny
in another guise
‘Kill the Indian to save the soul’
was, is still, in present form
a manifest obscenity

So as they whoop in glee
at a single, well-earned death
a grey-haired wise man’s face appears
chanting to the drum of time – no, no
What do you know of such things
they scream at him – just go!
Listen to the spirit of the earth he cries
Live, don’t kill, in the name of Geronimo

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