The Bin Laden thriller that's too hot for Hollywood
Just a couple of years back, Kathryn Bigelow was the toast of Hollywood. At the 2010 Academy Awards, her gruelling Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker won Best Picture, and Bigelow herself became the first woman ever to win an Oscar for direction.
Now, though, she's at the centre of a storm of controversy as critics and pundits bitterly argue the merits of her latest film.
Jessica Chastain plays an agent called Maya, who's involved in the interrogation of a suspected al-Qa'ida operative in Pakistan in 2003 when she stumbles on a possible connection to Bin Laden himself.
Thereafter she becomes obsessed with tracking down the architect of the 9/11 attacks, and she and her colleagues resort to terrible brutality in order to get what they want.
Seamlessly transforming a historical sequence of events into a gripping and beautifully made thriller, Bigelow's film is a creative triumph and at one point seemed a shoo-in for major Oscar success. But almost as soon as it was released, Zero Dark Thirty was subjected to sustained vitriolic attacks and has now become something of an awards season hot potato.
Tellingly, and rather bizarrely given the film's undeniable technical excellence, Bigelow has not been nominated for the Best Director Oscar, though Ang Lee has for the daft and gimmicky Life of Pi. And while Zero Dark Thirty is up for Best Picture, a group of old liberal actors led by Ed Asner and Martin Sheen have started a campaign to urge Academy voters to snub Bigelow's film.
Acting CIA chief Michael Morell, who only recently replaced the disgraced David Petraeus, has strongly criticised what he calls the film's implication that "enhanced interrogation techniques . . . were the key to finding Bin Laden", enhanced interrogation being the CIA's chilling Orwellian euphemism for waterboarding and so forth.
Accusations have been flying about whether or not the Obama administration gave Bigelow and her writing partner Mark Boal access to classified information about the hunt for Bin Laden, and some Republicans have called it a pro-Obama propaganda film.
Guardian columnist and feminist author Naomi Wolf went even further, comparing Bigelow to Hitler's propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl, and claiming that Bigelow will be "remembered forever as torture's handmaiden", whatever the hell that means.
The problem, briefly, is this. In the opening scenes of Zero Dark Thirty, Jessica Chastain's character watches impassively as a male CIA agent beats a suspected terrorist, knocks him to the ground, subjects him to simulated drowning and forces him inside a horrifyingly small box.
This man will eventually give the agents information about another man who's working as Osama bin Laden's personal courier, thus initiating a long and tortuous trail of breadcrumbs that ultimately led to that night-time raid by Navy SEALs.
Bigelow and Boal have been accused of condoning the use of torture, falsifying the facts, lionising Obama and making a tinny propaganda film. It is, perhaps, the price they pay for working so closely with current affairs and recent events, but the irony of it all is that Zero Dark Thirty was not the film they set out to make in the first place.
Then, in May of 2011, history intervened. As soon as she heard that Bin Laden had been shot dead in Abottabad, Bigelow knew her film was dead in the water. Instead of abandoning the Bin Laden theme entirely, she and Boal agreed to try and dramatise the hunt for the terrorist.
"I was interested in putting the audience into the shoes of the men and women in the thick of this hunt," Bigelow recently explained to The New York Times, and "giving people a glimpse at the dedication and courage and sacrifice they made". All of which was easier said than done, especially as Bigelow and Boal were aiming to turn their film around and release it within a year of Bin Laden's killing.
Boal had already done a lot of research, talking to counter-terrorism experts in the army and the CIA and even, it is claimed, senior White House officials, to carefully construct an accurate picture of the search.
They shot on location near the Indian-Pakistani border, and production designer Jeremy Hindle meticulously reconstructed the compound where Bin Laden was found.
Zero Dark Thirty's breathtaking re-enactment of the assault on the Abottabad compound lasts a full 25 minutes, almost as long as the real assault. But it's those torture scenes that have attracted all the attention.
Bigelow's film has been accused of glorifying torture, a criticism most memorably levelled by Frank Bruni of The New York Times. " Dick Cheney will love Zero Dark Thirty," he commented, and added: "No waterboarding, no Bin Laden – that's what Zero Dark Thirty appears to suggest." But does it?
Boal has pointed out that Zero Dark Thirty is "a movie – not a documentary". He and Bigelow "had to compress a very complicated debate and a 10-year period into two hours. It doesn't surprise me that people bring political agendas to the film but it doesn't have a political agenda".
Bigelow has admitted that "I wish the torture and interrogation techniques weren't part of this narrative, but they were a part of history".
That history, however, is uncomfortably recent, and consequently all the more controversial.
Maybe Zero Dark Thirty has annoyed so many people not because it has an agenda, but because it shines a bright light on how Bin Laden and al-Qa'ida managed to change America. After 9/11, the Bush administration resorted to military abductions, internment without trial and what can only be called state-sponsored torture.
And however much Zero Dark Thirty's critics might reject the supposition, it seems highly likely that enhanced interrogation played some part in the finding and killing of Bin Laden.