Making a film about the period between the 9/11 bombings and the killing of Osama Bin Laden is quite an undertaking. For a start, there are 11 years between the two events, but there are also countless ways to approach it, millions of people involved, and a lot of strong feelings to consider. For those reasons, the decision of director Kathryn Bigelow (teaming up again with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal, as per ‘The Hurt Locker’) to focus the story on one person (a CIA agent trying to hunt down the whereabouts of Osama) make sense and the subsequent criticisms of the film as promoting torture are almost to be expected.
The film begins with and audio montage of 9/11 911 calls and police radios before landing in a compound in Pakistan where a man is being detained and interrogated with increasingly tortuous tactics. Our protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain) is flown in from the CIA in Washington DC to assist with the investigation. The torture is depicted as brutal, not without results, but also not without strains for the interrogator. Even Maya’s tough-skinned colleague Dan eventually gets worn down and weary, having to return to an American office (the monkeys being the final straw!) but the very fact that it is depicted at all, for so long and with a sort of moral abstention, is probably what is displeasing people. The fact is, torture WAS used, so to skim over it would be more inappropriate and akin to airbrushing it out of history.
The Obama era brings a shift in morals and an intensification of the chase, with the specialist team disbanding and the red tape proving increasingly infuriating. In a section reminiscent of serial killer hunt films like ‘Zodiac’, Maya stands her ground against the big-wigs, suffers some scary near misses and eventually we get act 3 – the mission to take out the unidentified third male. For some reason Osama Bin Laden is referred to as UBL, not sure if that is product placement or just a bad acronym. This section is excellent – the lack of music and the dark setting lending to the sense that you are with the team conducting the raid as well (apart from the fact that the team seem to breech the compound walls about five times!).
It’s an edgy, tense world we are looking into, and despite telling the story from an American’s viewpoint, there’s no flag-waving or gung-ho high-fiveing and despite the obvious dramatisation in sections, it all the time comes across as a believable train of events. The relentless pursuit consumes the lives of all those involved, literally or metaphorically, and when we reach the conclusion, Maya’s response to the question of “Where to now?” shows just how much.
Another good film from Kathryn Bigelow that keeps you interested despite already knowing the story and outcome and having a running time of well over 2 hours. That’s pretty good going I reckon!
4 on 5
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton
UK Release: 11th Jan 2013