Sunday, February 3, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: not your normal review

The story in a sense is well known. The question this movie asks is: "what does it take to hunt down someone like Osama Bin Laden?" Most reviews compare and contrast with "Hurt Locker", but I haven't seen this.

There is no broad focus, no real insight into the workings of the CIA.  We don't learn a lot about Pakistan. It follows Maya, who becomes obsessed with Osama Bin Laden. I don't want to give away details, but at one point the hunt has gone very cold, and it is looking very very unlikely that it will be successful. Maya is upset, and a colleague asks her "what are you going to do?" and she replies that she is going to hunt him down, and kill him.  The statement hangs in the air, and at the same time looks ridiculous, and brave.

Portrayal of torture? To me it showed the toll it takes on the interrogator as well as the interrogated. It strongly hints at the truth that most people will most likely say anything that will stop the interrogation.

Yes, we don't learn much about Maya. Her family, her background remains a mystery. No boyfriends, nothing. She becomes enmeshed in the hunt totally. When her boss asks her how long she has worked for the agency "12 years": 'what else have you done for us': "nothing, nothing else".

Any big organisation has it's Mayas. There are people that do things, and people that stand and watch.  A lot of what we learn is the incredible difficulty of intelligence work. That it was absolutely impossible to get any confirmation of who actually was in the compound without going in and blowing doors open. A determined, intelligent adversary who is aware of the technology and methods of his hunters can effectively neutralise them. Knowing that they could track anything connected to the internet, he never connected to it. Knowing that he could be sighted from above, he never appeared out in the open.

Maya is an incredibly powerful character. She will take enormous, career destroying, deadly risks in order to complete the search. But to me, the real content of this movie is about exactly what that requires. How hard it is to go into a room full of risk-averse executives and somehow persuade them to conduct a fishing expedition in a foreign country. How hard it is to keep going when (almost) everything goes wrong. When it looks beyond hopeless. When everyone around you is playing the odds, and positioning themselves for when the operation fails.

More than that, it asks what is the personal cost of all this. In answer to the question "what does it take?" the actual, real answer is "what have you got?"

Washington Post story on the real 'Maya':

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