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Cinema Scope

Niggling (Non?) Fiction

16th Feb 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, and others

Maybe a story that everyone knows, and remembers, doesn't make for a very good thriller. Maybe a spy film that isn't thriller material needs to spend more time on actual intelligence-gathering methods than gruesome torture. Maybe it veers too often between documentary and drama. Or, maybe we've seen too many films that elevate people to heroes simply for doing their jobs. Of course, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is a shoo-in for the Oscars, as most painstakingly shot movies based on real events, and starring a woman, are. But it niggles throughout.

There are times when chunks of this film, which claims to be based on first-person accounts, are lost in jargon. At other times, the script troubles us by squeezing the grey areas out into black and white. I felt this most strongly when a detainee who's been subjected to waterboarding, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, and confinement in a tiny box chats away about the Al Qaeda's operatives over a hot meal.

Aside from moral objections – and there are many of those – there are several grouses a South Asian could nurse against the film. For the large part, it gets the ethnicities of its cast wrong, expecting us to believe an Algerian can pass for a Baluchi, or a Lebanese for a Pakistani. Second, except for the dialogue in Urdu, it gives them all a generic, thick, Middle-Eastern English accent.

The film doesn't stand scrutiny in its telling – there's little plot, and no characterisation. The camera often lingers on CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), leaving her expressions to convey her hard-headedness, loneliness, relief, disgust, and pain. While Chastain does deliver, she's limited by the weakness of the structure. Several good actors, among them Jason Clarke, who plays an interrogation expert, are wasted in a film that doesn't make time for them. On the other hand, it makes a big deal of showing us Maya lifting the veil of her burkha to sip juice, munch fries, and rest her canvas shoes on the table. Okay, she's an American in Pakistan, we get that. She hasn't gone native but uses the conventions cleverly, we get that too.

There are glimpses of Bigelow's filmmaking skill – one of my favourite scenes is that of operative Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) waiting eagerly for her big catch, an Al Qaeda doctor who's willing to be America's mole. The evolution of the relationship between the two women, of competitiveness leading to camaraderie, is traced expertly. But on the whole, empathy with the film eludes.

The Verdict: If you followed the news in the days after May 1, 2011, this film may not sustain your interest.

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