AS PART of a scrambling among critics the world over to acknowledge the genius of Kathryn Bigelow after the release of her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, Roger Ebert called her “a master of stories about men and women who choose to be in physical danger. She cares first about the people,” he went on, “then about the danger. She doesn’t leave a lot of room for much else.” In Zero Dark Thirty, her next film that has been nominated for five Oscars, Bigelow tells the story of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden through the story of one woman’s doggedness. Unlike The Hurt Locker, though, the psychology seems forced, leaving the film with an identity crisis of sorts.
The trope of the lone wolf battling enemies within and without before eventually triumphing is an old Hollywood favourite, a by-product of the celebration of individualism that is at the centre of the American ethos. Bigelow’s Maya (Chastain) is part-Clint Eastwood, part-Carrie Mathison (from Homeland), part- Avner Kaufman (Munich). Initially a reluctant, semi-neurotic inductee into the CIA’s Islamabad bureau (because that is clearly the best place to start for a new recruit), her initial battles are fought not to find Osama, but to establish that she is the smartest person in the room. Over the years, she finds herself more and more invested in the chase, a consequence of being more and more alone, as her teammates either die or leave for other assignments. Eventually, she’s the lone crusader, obsessing over a single lead that she believes will lead her to Osama, despite all warnings of confirmation bias, as the agency begins to focus on preventing future attacks rather than find a man who might already be dead. For someone who has been lauded for her originality, Bigelow surprisingly restricts her characters to established Hollywood archetypes: the naïve but intelligent girl paired with the gruff but sensitive partner, the middle manager out to save his own skin, the folksy director who sees promise in someone his underlings don’t appreciate (though the idea of Tony Soprano as CIA Director is pretty awesome).
Mercifully, the film is more than a rah-rah piece of American chauvinism. It suggests, for instance, that much of the information that led to Osama’s killing was acquired through torture, though that claim has been questioned by members of Congress (The jury, most likely, will be out for quite some time to come). Telling a “true story based on first-hand accounts”, its premise is more journalistic than dramatic, which is why Maya’s personal crusade seems out of place. Writing in the Pacific Standard, former CIA operative Nada Bakos said, “Zero Dark Thirty occupied an odd space. It’s not ridiculous enough to allow complete suspension of disbelief… but it’s not accurate enough to resonate with my experiences”. Osama was captured not by one woman working off two data points, she adds, but by an entire agency using thousands of data points. Of course, the limitations of plot make a purely journalistic treatment impossible, but that is the identity crisis the film suffers. The personal stories aren’t compelling enough, while the account of the manhunt isn’t accurate enough. Neither is the action slick enough for the film to work purely for that.
Bigelow’s personal story and unique sensibility make her a director one wants to support. More than the quality of her work, it is the fact that she was willing to take risks and challenge convention that won her many admirers. But with Zero Dark Thirty, she has produced the unthinkable: a conventional Hollywood film.