Osama, where art thou!

The dogged pursuit of the terrorist makes for a suspenseful albeit over-simplified tale

Poor Maya. The waking life of the pretty CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty is spent obsessing over one thing and nothing else: hunting down that bearded piece of work dubbed by military-speak as "UBL". Usama Bin Laden is Maya's Holy Grail, her lifetime achievement, her addiction, her soulmate. If Maya were an actress, the terrorist would be her Oscar. And given that we all know what happened 20 months ago in that house in Pakistan _ the UBL assassination is re-enacted here with the thrilling, goggle-eyed, sometimes first-person video-game aesthetics _ history and headlines have already put on the spoiler alert for the world audience: Maya wins, big time. She's got her metaphorical Oscar, and fittingly, she's shocked and awed and even breaks down after the trophy (the corpse) has been brought to her.

Zero Dark Thirty
Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.

There's hardly a dull moment in Zero Dark Thirty. Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar hopeful, from the script by Mark Boal _ they collborated on the superior The Hurt Locker _ is a skin-tight, effective procedural with a maddening focus on the CIA's decade-long manhunt of the elusive bin Laden. At the centre of everything, at least according to this "based on true accounts" story, is Maya. In a "black site", she starts off by watching her colleague torture an al Qaeda low-rank, a scene that has set Congress flustering, and grows to become a ferocious bloodhound hell-bent on doing anything _ shouting at her boss and threatening more advanced interrogation _ to find the whereabouts of bin Laden.

In many ways, Maya shares the same dark cloud of addiction as the Jeremy Renner character in Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. The script's strategy is transparent: it narrows everything down, from narrative, perspective, worldview, and one of the results is how global geopolitics becomes one woman's monomania. Zero Dark Thirty strips off all the context _ Maya's obsession is never explained and the post-9/11 world is seen through a glass of the war on terror _ and by decontextualising an issue so complex, so contested and involving so many nations, beliefs, ideologies and moral quandaries, the film is also an act of conscious over-simplification. Gripping it certainly is, but disturbing, or disturbingly ignorant, is also its quality. Let's not wade into that debate about torture and whether or not the film endorses such atrocity (for that, refer to Slavoj Zizek's essay in The Guardian, among many others). Maya's search for bin Laden isn't easy, and her dogged pursuit of leads and informants, however obscure, is the mechanism of the film's suspense.

By making her merely a vessel _ with deliberate avoidance to show her motive or drive _ the film seems to hope for a kind of objectivity: this is just a bureaucrat trying to do her job.

But of course objectivity is, like the agent herself, a maya _ an illusion _ because the world is populated by people like bin Laden and George W Bush, among others, and they are too complicated to be represented through such single-mindedness. Tragedy struck New York in 2001, then in the following years in London, Jakarta, and also in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan; Maya, an information expert, ironically seems to be aware of only some of them. The strangest part, and apparently the pride of the film, is the 40-minute edge-of-seat re-staging of the night raid by a bunch of handsome marines to capture and kill bin Laden in his safe house in Abottabad, Pakistan.

It's a wonder that while the entire movie has been told from Maya's viewpoint, this minutely choreographed section completely leaves the CIA agent behind as we follow the soldiers, like a ringside spectator at a fight of the century, into that house. Poor Maya. The bureaucrat who's trying to do her job has to make way for a Hollywood-style shoot-out in that maze-like abode, and the semblance of objectivity is trumped by a showcase of quiet triumphalism. This sudden shift in perspective gives the movie away. I think it smacks of arrogance of a different kind to compare Bigelow, as Naomi Wolf does, to the Nazi-sponsored filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl's movies are driven by a twisted ideology, Bigelow's film is just narrow-minded and superficial. And it must be said that Riefenstahl's films, despite their horrifying agenda, are more technically sophisticated; Zero Dark Thirty _ this is a surprise, since I think The Hurt Locker was visually captivating _ relies on a sort of calculated, overwrought realism that's less believable than, say, Argo, which isn't really the best film itself. The first few minutes of Argo, in which documentary footage of a Teheran protest is intercut with re-created scenes at the US embassy, at least gives a sense of historical perspective and streetwise ambiguity. That's what Maya doesn't feel: ambiguous. Her determined, unrelenting, Captain Ahab-like mania to harpoon her Moby Dick blindsides her, and the movie, from the complexity of the world. History may have vindicated her, but whose history?

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Deputy Life Editor