Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Written by Mark Boal
So little in this world is tangibly right or wrong that when an opportunity to channel our innate desire to see good triumph over evil comes along, we grab at it with all our strength. Such a chance arose in the aftermath of the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The whole world soon knew that Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda, was the mastermind of these attacks, and so he needed to be brought to justice. The military and intelligence units tried everything, but the years wore on, and people either forgot about or ignored bin Laden, focusing more on what target would be next, which innocent civilians could possibly die at a moment’s notice. Yet enough people were obsessive in their need to capture bin Laden no matter what. The exhausting yet wholly engrossing new film Zero Dark Thirty documents this decade-long manhunt and its unspeakable cost, doing so with exceptional panache.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA agent who was recruited straight out of high school, and has spent her entire career searching for the ever-elusive bin Laden. As Zero Dark Thirty, she arrives in Pakistan from Washington, DC, joining a small group of agents who resort to various torture, or “enhanced interrogation,” tactics on low- or mid-level al-Qaeda operatives, hoping to reach for any straws they’re offered, anything that might lead them to bin Laden. As time passes, Maya’s determination to catch bin Laden, and her belief that he’s out there, waiting to be found as long as the right courier or bagman is identified, grows exorbitantly. Eventually, as (it’s safe to assume) pretty much everyone on the planet knows, a lead did break, culminating in a Navy Seal raid on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and bin Laden’s death.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, both fresh from their well-deserved Oscar wins from the 2009 Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker, expand their focus in Zero Dark Thirty but manage to make Maya the center of the conflict. Her intelligence is almost supernatural, her unwavering confidence almost frightening to her fellow CIA operatives. Chastain, who first had a major film role only two years ago in The Tree of Life and has since demanded our collective attention in a number of versatile performances, is excellent as this brittle yet perceptive agent. As both an audience surrogate and the smartest person in each room she wanders into, Maya is a fascinating if spare creation, apparently inspired by a real CIA agent equally as alienating and brilliant. We learn little about Maya throughout Zero Dark Thirty aside from a few details here and there, speaking to the idea that while this woman’s obsessive nature is part of what ultimately leads American forces to Osama bin Laden, it is a desire that’s almost universal. Her drive to get bin Laden, her need to see him brought down, isn’t specific to her personal demons, but to the demons wrought upon an entire nation, if not the world. Channeling the broken psyche of, at the very least, America is a ridiculously difficult task, but Chastain’s work is exemplary. Her final scene, especially, is heartbreaking not only for what it says about her character, but the character of humanity at large.
Zero Dark Thirty is less about building tension from sequence to sequence as The Hurt Locker was, but has a growing sense of impending doom throughout its nearly 160-minute length. The final act, appropriately, focuses on the Seal Team 6 raid of the bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, shot partially in night vision. That such an extended scene, one whose basic climax we are all aware of, is able to feel so unbearably suspenseful speaks to Bigelow’s talent as a director. Along with cinematographer Grieg Fraser, she delivers here and throughout the entire film an unfussy immediacy to the proceedings. Her camera is shaky, but not so as to feel distracting. Instead, thanks to Boal’s apolitical script, she puts us in each conference room, in each interrogation area, and in that compound. Some people may approach Zero Dark Thirty hoping for a jingoistic, fist-pumping good time. These people may well be sorely disappointed (or may simply ignore the larger point Bigelow and Boal are making), not because the film sidesteps the death of the modern world’s most feared and despised terrorist. By putting us in every room, by making us spectators to this grim, unwavering action, we’re made complicit in the many steps that lead to killing bin Laden.
A great deal of virtual hay has been made over whether or not Zero Dark Thirty, by showing how the CIA tortured suspects in the early days of the war on terror, advocates for such techniques. Though it may be glib, arguing this point is like arguing that Bambi, by intimating an act of gunplay and displaying its haunting after-effects, is in favor of hunting. Most of the first hour of Zero Dark Thirty features extended and immensely uncomfortable sequences depicting the torture of suspects by Americans. Though these are painful to behold, they are necessary in the film. We need to be reminded of the high moral price we paid by being willing to initially look away in our thirst for vengeance. Bigelow and Boal don’t let the characters speechify about torture’s benefits or demerits, but to watch this film and assume it promotes torture is to allow your pre-existing notions to blind you from what’s being shown on screen.
Zero Dark Thirty is a dark, thoroughly captivating, and superlative journey into the deepest recesses of the modern soul, and a massive cinematic achievement. You may wonder if it’s too soon to make a movie about the hunt for and death of Osama bin Laden. Do we have enough perspective on the event, what led up to it, and what has followed to comment on it in a fictional manner? (Those against the film for its supposed pro-torture leanings will argue that its statement that it’s based on first-hand accounts of the events invalidates it as fiction. That claim will be difficult for any fans of Friday Night Lights, Lost, or Parks and Recreation to swallow, as actors from each of those shows appear here. This is because—hold on tight—Zero Dark Thirty is a fictionalized account of a true story.) The aftermath of bin Laden’s death hasn’t stopped; maybe ten years from now, a new story will need to be told based on what’s transpired in the world. For now, Zero Dark Thirty feels very much of the moment while expertly commenting on how we lost ourselves as we searched for a man who nearly remained hidden.
— Josh Spiegel