Movies that are rooted in realism or inspired by true tales make great cinema. Two of Hollywood’s best classics, Gone With The Wind and Casablanca, were scripted out of actual events, though peppered with artistic liberties and a liberal dash of fiction. These are but only two examples, and there have been many, many more since then.
The latest, Zero Dark Thirty, is a work by Katherine Bigelow, who got big-time attention when her 2009 The Hurt Locker about a bomb disposal squad in Iraq won several Oscars, including those for Best Director and Best Picture. No other woman had ever won the Best Director trophy.
Bigelow’s film explores the real story of the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden. And it was a woman who ultimately helped the American CIA nail down the al Qaeda leader, the mastermind behind 9/11. She was herself a young CIA agent, and her dogged efforts are said to have led the American assault team to the Abbottabad home of Bin Laden in Pakistan – where he had been hiding for months. Or, was it years?
Zero Dark Thirty cracks some of the myths that have surrounded not just the cold-blooded killing of the terrorist, but also the shabby treatment which the CIA meted out to one who was arguably the key player in the drama.
Bigelow, whose movie is inspired by hard facts, shows how in the male-dominated CIA, the agent’s work (which could have eased America’s years of tension and worry following 9/11), went unsung. She got neither recognition for helping to nab the world’s most wanted man nor promotion. But, she reportedly received a cash bonus for, as even her male colleagues grudgingly admit, a brilliant piece of investigation.
Now, Zero Dark Thirty has immortalized the agent’s role in this whole sordid business. Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (who also wrote The Hurt Locker) were lucky enough to meet senior Government officials in the U.S., and also the woman herself around whom the film revolves. Starring Jessica Chastain (tipped to win the Best Actress Oscar nomination/award) as the CIA agent, the movie which has just opened in cinemas, seems like an early Best Picture Oscar favorite.
In the movie, Chastain’s Agent Maya analyses the confessions of prisoners, broken completely after inhuman interrogations to zero in on a vital lead. There is a very important scene where we see three CIA officers looking at the television screen on which President Barack Obama is telling an interviewer that America does not torture. The camera then pans to a close up of one of the three officers, Maya, whose face is absolutely expressionless. What is on her mind? Is it disbelief or contempt? It is her blank face that has stirred up a controversy, which I will come back to a little later.
As Maya probes deeper, she understands that Bin Laden is clever enough not to use a mobile telephone or an internet connection for fear of being tracked down. So, how did he communicate with his men? Obviously through a courier.
Maya traces every single courier in Afghanistan, and stumbles upon a guy called Abu Ahmed, who regularly uses a white SUV to journey back and forth from his Peshawar home to Bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad.
Really, how stupid of Ahmed and Bin Laden himself! But as criminologists will tell us, a criminal invariably ends up committing the silliest of errors – royally giving the game away. Here, the white SUV – the vehicle was never changed – sticks out like a sore thumb.
Bigelow’s work captures Maya’s frustration and disappointment as she tries to convince the CIA about her lead. When the organization refuses to budge, she threatens the CIA head that she will charge him with “incompetence” if he fails to give her what she needs.
In an interesting piece, The New Yorker quips: “That a woman is leading the charge is almost as surprising to the Americans as it is to the Muslim prisoners. After all the female avengers of the past 15 years — Uma Thurman and Angelina Jolie kicking men in the ego and other places — American films have at last produced a woman clothed, like Athena, in willful strength and intellectual armor.”
That woman, Maya is still active, is in her thirties, remains undercover, and while receiving the agency’s highest medal, was denied a promotion that would have raised her civil service rank from GS-13 to GS-14, bringing an additional $16,000 in annual pay.
While critics have applauded Zero Dark Thirty, which has been picking the season’s early awards, the U.S. administration is not too pleased with the movie. Three Senators who watched it – particularly Maya’s blank look in that scene, I would presume -- said they were disappointed with its presentation of inaccurate facts. It was not the torture of prisoners which enabled Maya to uncover Bin Laden’s secret hideout. The breakthrough about the courier had nothing to do with the CIA detention and its interrogation programme. The prisoner who came closest to giving the information did so before he was tortured, not after, according to one of the Senators.
Obviously, the Senators must have had a problem with the film’s depiction of torture methods used by the CIA – a fact that Washington has been trying to underplay, even deny. So, it is not surprising that Bigelow’s work – like so many other movies spinning their narratives around facts – ought to have attracted condemnation from the Senators -- something that while earning it critical applause might just about impede its race towards the Oscars.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a movie critic, commentator and author, and may be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org