Review – Zero Dark Thirty

As politicians lapped up the credit and thousands of people across America took to the streets to revel in the perceived victory, the ones who were truly responsible for the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden remained behind the scenes.

Kathyryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty

Kathyryn Bigelow’s “complex, challenging and totally gripping” Zero Dark Thirty

Their moment has come in director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s complex, challenging and totally gripping Zero Dark Thirty, the follow up to their Oscar-winning Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker.

Those expecting or hoping for a flag-waving, ultra-patriotic exercise in easy-to-swallow triumphalism will need to look elsewhere. What we get is a sobering, cerebral and, most importantly, apolitical account of the tireless work that went into tracking down America’s public enemy number one by a small band of Central Intelligence Agency and military personnel.

Zero Dark Thirty is a classic procedural in the mould of All The President’s Men and TV’s The Wire, with the crime here being the 9/11 attacks. Bigelow’s first masterstroke is not to show us those infamous images (they’ve been scorched into our psyches already); instead the film opens with a chilling montage of overlapping telephone calls made by people trapped in the Twin Towers played over a black screen.

CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) leads the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty

CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) leads the decade-long hunt for Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty

The film then jarringly throws us into an undisclosed CIA site in Pakistan where new girl Maya (Jessica Chastain) witnesses ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (read: torture)  up-close for the first time courtesy of fellow operative Dan (Jason Clarke), a chameleon who looks as comforable in a shirt and tie as he does with his hands around someone’s neck.

Dan wants actionable intelligence and makes good on a repeated threat to his prisoner that “when you lie to me, I hurt you” by subjecting him to waterboarding and other forms of torture. Initially distressed, Maya is soon employing similiar tactics in her own interrogations.

CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke) in Zero Dark Thirty

CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke) in Zero Dark Thirty

Maya is a blank canvas, with no back story, personal life or friends, merely an all-consuming, evangelical zeal to find Bin Laden by any means necessary. She represents a post-9/11 America whose moral compass has been eroded by a willingness to justify increasingly unethical behaviour.

The only connections she has are with fellow CIA officers, in particular Jessica (the excellent Jennifer Ehle), an older, more wily operative who talks of baking a cake for a potential informant and having him killed if he doesn’t prove useful in the same conversation.

As coldly analytical as Maya and her colleagues are towards contacts or detainees, seeing them as nothing more than assets to drive forward the investigation, its constant dead-ends, labyrinthine complexity and mounting casualties breeds a frustrated thirst for vengeance. At her lowest ebb, a grieving Maya coldly informs a colleague: “I’m going to smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m going to kill Bin Laden.”

The Seal Team Six raid Bin Laden's compound in Zero Dark Thirty

The Seal Team Six raid Bin Laden’s compound in Zero Dark Thirty

In the hands of a lesser director, Zero Dark Thirty could have been reduced to a tub-thumping embarrasment, but Bigelow is too smart to poison Boal’s painstakingly researched script like that and instead maintains a measured detachment to the material.

The Navy Seal raid on the compound believed to house Bin Laden (only Maya is prepared to stick her neck out to categorically state he is in there) is a case in point. It could so easily have turned into a hyper-stylised action set piece akin to a video game, but in Bigelow’s hands Zero Dark Thirty‘s final act has a documentary feel, all be it a superbly filmed one (much of it shot using night vision lenses) that has a taut, nerve-jangling authenticity to it.

CIA senior officer George (Mark Strong) looks on nervously in Zero Dark Thirty

CIA senior officer George (Mark Strong) looks on nervously in Zero Dark Thirty

Bigelow is clearly fascinated with the dehumanising effect the so-called ‘War on Terror’ has on those fighting on the frontlines. In The Hurt Locker it was a bomb disposal expert; here it’s Maya whose soul is gradually eaten away by the things she sees and does.

During one scene Maya, angry at a colleague’s decision not to deploy a team to track down a key target, realises her bad cop approach isn’t working and gives him a beer to sweeten him up. It’s reminiscent of an earlier moment when she observes Dan using the same tactic to get a tortured detainee onside and serves as a subtle allusion to the lengths she’s prepared to go.

The fact that politicians and pundits on all sides have come out against the film means Bigelow and Boal have done their job. In one scene, Maya and Jessica watch impassively as President Obama states on TV that “America doesn’t torture” before carrying on their conversation. Just as with the rest of the film, Bigelow leaves it to us to read into it what we will.

The most explosive charge levelled at the filmmakers has come from those attacking Zero Dark Thirty for supposedly condoning torture (in many cases before they’ve even watched the film). Hard to watch they may be, but to omit these scenes from a film as important as this because they make politicians uncomfortable would have been to disregard a key chapter and inexorably damage the story Bigelow and Boal are trying to tell.

A fantastic cast is led by the compulsive Chastain, who knows exactly what to give in every scene. It’s a haunting performance, one appropriate to a film that, like Robert Redford at the end of The Candidate asks “what do we do now?”.

Review – Argo

It’s frankly remarkable Argo has taken this long to reach the big screen – a film with a you-just-couldn’t-make-it-up storyline in which Hollywood comes out smelling of roses.

More than 50 Americans were held hostage for 444 days after Islamist protestors and militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran, Iran, in 1979.

Argo is the kind of superior political thriller that all-too-rarely gets made these days

The story of their long ordeal has been well documented. What isn’t as well-known is the plight of six Americans who made it out of the country as a result of an extraordinary CIA plot led by operative Tony Mendez in which an elaborate cover story was hatched to pass the group off as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi movie called Argo.

It wasn’t until 1997 when President Bill Clinton declassified the CIA files that the story officially came to light and only now do we have the movie ‘based’ on Mendez’s historical account courtesy of actor/director Ben Affleck.

Much like Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), Argo adopts the look and feel of such classic 1970s nail-biters as Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974), right down to the old Warner Bros logo at the front end of the movie and the use of old film stock to provide a suitably grainy look. Affleck also mixes things up with fast zooms, long lens shots and close-ups to crank up the tension.

The use of handheld cameras during the scenes in Iran give the action a confused, panicked quality that is effectively handled and works as a parallel to the comical exchanges between Mendez (Affleck), make-up artist and CIA contact John Chambers (John Goodman) and veteran producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) as they work against the clock to put flesh on Argo‘s bones.

This is most powerfully demonstrated during the scene when a speech given by a spokeswoman for the militants outlining to the world’s media their political position is intercut with a script reading of Argo featuring actors in ridiculous costumes.

CIA agent hatches a so-crazy-it=might-just-work scheme to save a group of Americans in Ben Affleck's Argo

CIA agent Tony Mendez endeavours to save a group of Americans in Ben Affleck’s Argo

In lesser hands you would have heard someone dramatically declare “it’s crazy, but it might … just … work”. However, Affleck has matured as a director since his admirable 2007 debut Gone Baby Gone and shown he can helm claustrophobic action in his follow-up The Town (2010).

Affleck makes emphatically clear the life or death stakes facing the group and the paranoia and queasiness that fear can exert. You get a very real sense that one false step by any of them will mean the game’s up for all.

That being said, the wheels begin to fall off somewhat in the film’s final third. Lest we forget, this is a Hollywood picture, and as the embassy staff and Mendez make their tortuous way through Tehran Airport it’s difficult not to feel like you’re being deceived just as much as the security guards.

"It's so crazy it might just work". CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) teams up with Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman)

“It’s so crazy it might just work”. CIA agent Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) teams up with Hollywood producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman)

That’s not to say Affleck doesn’t handle the group’s final escape well – it’s a masterful, pulse-quickening action sequence that pushes all the right buttons. But the contrivances of the plot (plane tickets being confirmed with seconds to spare and other moments I won’t spoil) are hard to swallow (in fact they’re plain inaccurate) and bring to mind the over-the-top denouement to the otherwise enjoyable The Last King of Scotland (2006).

With Iran having rarely been out of the news for the past few years, Argo‘s politics are inevitably going to be put under the spotlight. Affleck doesn’t let himself down here. While we’re under no illusion who the heroes of this tale are, from the opening sequence (filmed as a movie storyboard) where we get a short history lesson on the brutality of the Shah’s rule and the subsequent revolution that saw the birth of an Islamic republic, we are asked to  understand the anger of the Iranian people and why the embassy was stormed. This is no Black Hawk Down (2001) with an implacable, faceless and one-dimensional enemy.

While Affleck won’t win any prizes for historical accuracy (what Hollywood film does?), Argo nevertheless stands on its feet as the kind of superior political thriller that all-too-rarely gets made in Tinseltown these days.