|'Bigelow is too clever to take us down the road of token sexual release for the heroine. Maya isn't the stereotypical screen loner. She is the real thing.'|
The ethical issue of torture does not deserve to have dominated the discussion surrounding Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty quite as much as it has. Whilst the film does suggest that the torture of detainees led to useful information, its politics about the broken morals of the matter are clear. 'This is what defeat looks like', Jason Clarke's Dan says in the interrogation room, after a casual bit of waterboarding. It is entirely ambiguous exactly who he is talking about. The same character's later retreat to Washington, where previously he was suggested to be a stoney-faced killer, backs up the argument that such tactics ultimately perpetrate negativity and harm.
The film's treatment of torture as an issue then is hardly worth extreme consideration but Zero Dark Thirty's focus on it does raise a structuring quibble. The first third of Zero Dark Thirty is comprised of a tour around various grimy CIA 'black sites', hidden bases full of detainees with useful information to spill at Maya's (Jessica Chastain) feet. This overt violence jars with the tension and subtler moments of the desk work (think a modern-day Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and you're somewhere in a similar area of spying) that makes up large parts of the final two thirds. At one-hundred and fifty-seven minutes too, this is a film that could do with a few less trips to random prison cells.
That said, the more time in the company of Maya, the better. Chastain crafts a believable battle-axe, a woman successful to the detriment of everything, who thinks little of showing up a future 'friend' when she knows she is right. Maya goes through quiet resignation, ecstatic success and virulent passion. At one point Mark Boal's screenplay suggests we may see the token moment of sexual release, but Bigelow is too clever to take us down that road. Maya isn't the stereotypical screen loner. She is the real thing.
This makes the finale, with the Joel Edgerton-led team assaulting the now-famous compound, all the more frustrating. Whilst it perfectly showcases Bigelow's grasp of tension - show the mundane things, like leaving your house or opening a door and the rest will follow - and action, Maya disappears off-screen for around twenty minutes. As a cameoing John Barrowman says at one point, 'I want to know what Maya thinks'. So do I, and her complete absence from this section weakens the argument that Zero Dark Thirty is a film concerned more with her and how she represents us, than it is a film concerned with being about entertaining gun-play.