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Film review: The relentless redhead who took down bin Laden

2013-01-17T16:37:00Z 2013-01-17T16:39:36Z Film review: The relentless redhead who took down bin LadenBy BRENT NORTHUP Film Review Helena Independent Record
January 17, 2013 4:37 pm  • 

A U.S. Army website is currently trumpeting the contributions of women in U.S. military history.

The site tells how in 1776 Margaret Corbin watched her husband die while firing a cannon — so Margaret took his place at the cannon and was wounded.

Another female soldier nicknamed “Molly Pitcher” risked her life in 1778 in Monmouth, N.J., to carry pitchers of water to soldiers on the battlefield.

The punch line of this recruiting site states the obvious, if slow-to-be-acknowledged, truth, “that it was clear that the heart of the warrior was not limited to one gender.”

Just as surely, directors of war movies are no longer limited to one gender: The two best war films of this millennium have both been directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow.

She won both the best picture and best director Oscars for “Hurt Locker.” Her latest film, “Zero Dark Thirty” swept most of the critics’ awards at the end of the year and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture.

Inexplicably, Bigelow was not nominated for Best Director.

That snub even caught the Academy with its promotional pants down, having prepared a “factoid” for release that said Bigelow was “the first woman to have more than one directing nomination.” Oops, better count the ballots first, Oscar.

Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” the tale of the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden, takes a distinctly gendered perspective on war.

Rather than focusing on the all-male SEAL force that carried out the Pakistani raid, Bigelow turns her focus on the female intelligence officer, Maya, who located bin Laden.

It was Maya who ultimately got the administration to go all-in on that raid despite never having visually confirmed that bin Laden was in that compound.

“Zero Dark Thirty” thus becomes the latest military promotion touting female contributions to military history.

The final heart-thumping account of the raid that killed bin Laden certainly is the coup de grace in this fine film, but its sustained power over 157 minutes can be credited to Jessica Chastain.

Chastain is now the co-favorite (with Jennifer Lawrence) for Best Actress for her portrayal of the CIA agent whose brains and tenacity flushed out bin Laden.

One theory about why the Academy snubbed Bigelow in the Best Director race revolves around the politics of the plot — the CIA is shown torturing prisoners to extract information.

Maya is shown watching harsh interrogations designed to learn the name of a courier who hand-delivered messages to bin Laden.

After the CIA team finds out the name of the courier, the rest of the script involves following the courier until he visits bin Laden — and then sending in the SEAL Team 6 to finish the job in 40 tense, efficient minutes.

The outcry charged that the CIA never did torture suspects to get the information or, even if it did, that such tactics should never be condoned.

Some analysts are calling the snub of Bigelow a “conservative” action to prevent the Academy from endorsing the “torture politics” of “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Harsh interrogation is presented as an everyday CIA tactic, that’s clear.

But every lead — no matter how obtained — is cross-checked thoroughly and rejected without collaborating intelligence.

And there’s another layer to this layered portrayal of torture.

It’s clear from watching Maya that this lady with nerves of steel is not comfortable watching the torture.

There’s an unspoken subtext to the film questioning whether the obsession with finding bin Laden ended up taking the U.S. down a regrettable moral path.

While Maya’s brilliant mind is obsessed with tracking down bin Laden, her face flinches when torture is used. Something’s churning in her stomach and her soul in those scenes.

Couldn’t Maya’s complex reaction amount to her doubts about using unethical means to reach her desired end? Doesn’t the final closeup also suggest that?

One could argue that waging an ethical war is an oxymoron to begin with, but that’s another column.

Chastain’s performance is reminiscent of other “you-go-girl” performances such as Sally Field’s portrayal of union organizer Norma Rae and Julia Roberts’ portrayal of environmental activist Erin Brockovich.

In each case, either literally or figuratively, the invincible lady stands on a table and announces to the world that she will not be denied until justice is done.

In the 20th century, such a story would inevitably have been told as a macho celebration of the 40 male SEALs.

But with Bigelow at the helm, the SEALs get second billing.

“Zero Dark Thirty” is told from the perspective of a female warrior, as directed by a female warrior.

The title of “Zero Dark Thirty” has been translated as a military term meaning “half past midnight” or “after dark.”

The raid does happen in the dark of night, just as the 10-year investigation itself operated in metaphoric darkness.

The final scene is, for me, the most chilling — and it, too, happens in the dark of night.

The helicopter has landed. The body bag is on a gurney.

Maya is asked to identify the body.

The bag is unzipped and she nods that the body is bin Laden. The president is called.

Maya then boards a transport plane as its only passenger, prompting an officer to comment, “you must be pretty important.”

At that point the camera zooms in for a closeup of Maya’s eyes as she begins to absorb the reality of what has just happened.

She does not pump her fist, Tiger-style. She does not smirk, Stallone-style.

Instead, her eyes show a deep sadness. We linger on those tortured eyes for a long while, before the screen fades to black.

When torture is used to hunt down a suspect, the hunter, too, suffers.

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Marga Lincoln covers entertainment news for the Independent Record. Send story ideas for YourTime to, or please call 447-4083 or 447-4074. Follow Marga at @IR_MargaLincoln.

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