24 Lies a Second: Rules of Engagement

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Rules of Engagement

I don't think there are any directors whose work I will avoid on principle (though these days Quentin Tarantino comes close – ironic, given he was just about the first director I really became aware of as a personality), but there are a few whose films I will go to see just on the strength of their name. These days I find Kathryn Bigelow to be one of them, which is why I trundled along to see Zero Dark Thirty.

I must confess that my liking for Bigelow stems mainly from the superior genre movies she was making in the 1980s and 90s – Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days, and so on. This century, however, Bigelow seems to have become a purveyor of serious dramas based on historical events – although the events in question seem to be becoming increasingly contemporary: following 2002's K-19: The Widowmaker, set in the 1950s, we had 2009's The Hurt Locker, set in 2003, and now Zero Dark Thirty, filmed within a year of the events depicted in its climax. At this rate Bigelow's next film will be a rugged and meticulously accurate prediction of the near future, which should be interesting.

Anyway: Zero Dark Thirty, which is apparently armyspeak for half-past midnight. This is a somewhat fictionalised account of the CIA's hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Central to the story is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent who has basically devoted her entire career to tracking down the al-Qaeda leadership. This involves much painstaking research, use of electronic and human intelligence, and a degree of persuading prisoners to tell her things against their will.

There's no getting around the fact that this is a movie that depicts representatives of the US government torturing captives. Most of the first twenty minutes of the film are devoted to the routine interrogation of a prisoner by Maya's colleague Dan (Jason Clarke), who their captive describes as 'an animal', possibly with some justification. However, to simply describe this as 'the CIA torture movie' is to be overly simplistic.

It's just one element of a long and intimidatingly dense narrative, chopped up into a number of chapters, and set in several different countries. The studio are apparently marketing this as an action thriller but it contains few of the incidental moments of suspense and violence that you'd expect from that kind of film. Nor does it really have a familiar narrative structure for one to latch onto, which may be a case of a film staying close to the truth at the expense of its storytelling – there's one brief sequence concerning a character played by Jennifer Ehle which does stay much closer to the standard playbook, and which for me had somewhat more suspense than the rest of it. On the other hand, the film commendably avoids a sensationalist approach and any sense of triumphalism.

Either way, it's helped by Bigelow's typically accomplished direction and a script which ensures you can always follow the melody of the story even when not all the lyrics are completely clear. And it's filled with good performances, from Chastain, Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Kyle Chandler and others. Better known names feature as more senior establishment figures – hardest working man in showbiz Mark Strong pops up as, basically, the CIA's head of assassinations, while Stephen Dillane and James Gandolfini also appear. All well and good, but rather more unexpected and distracting is a brief cameo from John Barrowman as some sort of analyst. Couldn't get a part in Les Mis, John?

Despite all this good stuff, I still found this quite a hard film to properly engage with, and this was largely due to the approach taken by the script. Zero Dark Thirty has drawn a lot of flak for supposedly endorsing torture as an intelligence-gathering technique, but to me it seemed that the film simply doesn't take a position on this – it reports the CIA use of torture as a fact, nothing more. The US administration's move away from the use of these kind of methods is reflected in the script, but again without any kind of moral judgement being made. And this is a theme which continues throughout the film, as it is framed in such a way as to avoid looking at the wider issues raised by the story. Did the CIA's eventual killing of Bin Laden have any measurable effect on terrorist activity around the world? If not, what was the point of it? What, for that matter, was the justification for the shoot-to-kill protocol adopted by the members of the assault team?

To be fair, the film does imply that both Maya and the USA have, in their own ways, developed a fixation on Bin Laden verging on the obsessive. But this is the softest of grace notes in the overall film. As a historical document the film is interesting and involving, but it's not necessarily a comfortable one or satisfying one. This is a big, important story, but most of the time the film refuses to engage with it on any level beyond that simply of the events unfolding. According to its own rules of engagement, Zero Dark Thirty is an impressive film – but those rules are much more restrictive than they surely needed to be.

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