Thursday, 14 February, 2013

And the Best Actress Oscar goes to Jessica Chastain for her performance in Zero Dark Thirty as a CIA agent ferociously fixated on finding the courier bringing messages to Osama bin Laden’s lair. The director-writer team of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have made an enthralling chronicle of the hunt that ended in Pakistan on 2 May 2011, shortly after 1:00 am local time, when a United States special forces military unit killed the founder of al Qaeda.

This is a film about procedure. Al Qaeda prisoners are interrogated, sometimes severely, and a series of seemingly unrelated details helps create a mosaic that ends in the deadly raid in Abbottabad. Did the questioning of al Qaeda terrorists and their helpers yield useful information in the search for bin Laden? One hopes so. In light of the 9/11 attacks, it was necessary to take the war to those who were committed to mass murder and the death of their chief ideologue was the end that justified the means.

The predictable arguments against the use of enhanced interrogation techniques by the CIA were trotted out at extraordinary length last week by Steve Coll in the New York Review of Books. Titled ‘Disturbing’ & ‘Misleading’, this predictable screed, disguised as a critique of Zero Dark Thirty, is punctuated with breathtakingly bland clichéd statements — “Even if torture worked, it could never be justified because it is immoral.” — on its long march towards caricature. “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf,” wrote George Orwell about pacifists in an essay titled “Notes on Nationalism“.

Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, in contrast, have a far better way with words than Steve Coll does. In one of their scenes, the interrogator Dan, played by Jason Clarke, says to an al Qaeda prisoner, “This is what defeat looks like, bro. Your jihad is over.”

And so is that of Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty is an excellent entertainment about the indispensable, long, hard battle with nihilism.

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