Zero Dark Thirty
Gripping drama targets the gritty details of warmaking
Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Katheryn Bigelow
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton
Director Kathryn Bigelow firmly established her action movie bona fides with 2008’s Iraq war drama The Hurt Locker. (As if Near Dark, Blue Steel and Point Break hadn’t already driven home the point). Having conclusively (and award-winningly) proven her ability to play shoot-’em-up with the big boys, Bigelow continues the trend, lighting the fuse on the controversial, “hunt for Osama bin Laden” drama Zero Dark Thirty.
The debate still rages whether we, as a nation, are ready for this story. The events of 9/11 and the consequent War on Terror are still a raw nerve for many. Members of Congress have even weighed in, alternately dubbing Bigelow’s film a liberal attempt to get Barack Obama reelected, a major violation of national security for its improper access to classified materials and a blatant fabrication since no American intelligence was ever gathered using torture. (Really? So why did we spend all those years discussing extraordinary rendition, waterboarding and Lyndie England?)
Wherever the “truth” lies, it’s hard to accuse Bigelow’s scary-intense end result of any political or philosophical bias. In fact, I don’t believe the words “Bush “ or “Obama” are ever spoken aloud. Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a gung-ho, guns-a-blazin’ war movie about who shot whom. It’s more a methodical examination of the patient, painstaking job of intelligence gathering. It may not be what we were expecting, but it’s definitely what we deserve.
The partially fictionalized story spans the course of nearly 11 years, focusing on the work of a single CIA analyst named Maya (the never-not-great Jessica Chastain from The Help and The Tree of Life). In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, Maya doggedly scales an ever-increasing mountain of potential leads trying to get a bead on terrorist kingpin Osama Bin Laden. She believes she’s found her smoking gun in Abu Ahmed, a trusted courier to the big man himself. Not everyone believes in Maya’s leads. Conflicting reports say Ahmed is dead. Some of the information was obtained through “enhanced interrogation techniques” and may be incorrect to begin with. As the years wear on, changing administrations and policies, few in the government are even convinced capturing bin Laden is a priority. But Maya sticks to her guns. Like a bloodhound with a scent in its nose, she refuses to give up.
Funny thing is, we know how this ends: a bravura, real-time recreation of the Navy SEAL Team 6 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. The inevitability of the story doesn’t lesson its impact any. Zero Dark Thirty plays out like a gritty “undercover cops vs. the Mafia” drama from the ’70s. It’s got the dark tension. It’s got the unvarnished realism. It’s got the subcultural, slang-filled dialogue. It’s got the tarnished “good guys” battling the committed “bad guys” scenario. But this thriller takes that claustrophobic, New York crime film atmosphere and expands it outward to fill a modern, global setting.
Admittedly, it takes a little while to get into this film’s measured pace and fly-on-the-wall dialogue. It starts out with some extremely blunt portrayals of torture. The inclusion is off-putting, but Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who worked together on The Hurt Locker) offer no clear commentary on the material. It’s impossible to tell if this film finds torture a necessary evil, a useful tool or a national embarrassment. In this case, it’s simply a fact.
As the story elements accrue, so does the overall tension. Boal’s script doesn’t spare a lot of time for storytelling niceties. In other words, we don’t get much background on our main character. We don’t see her lounging around at home, or flashing back to her troubled childhood or engaging in an unlikely romance with a newspaper reporter. All we know is that this lady is tenacious. And right.
Historically, films have shown war as heroic (anything John Wayne or Audie Murphy starred in), insane (Apocalypse Now), drug-addled (Platoon) or just plain scary (Saving Private Ryan). With The Hurt Locker, war was portrayed as an addictive drug that fills its junkies with an adrenaline high. That’s not an image most veterans really want. But it’s probably accurate. Zero Dark Thirty provides another unglamorous but likely correct assessment. War—modern war, anyway—is a ton of bureaucracy, piles of paperwork, lots of intelligence gathering, plenty of Senate subcommittee meetings and way too much staring at computer monitors. In fact, when this film does get around to its final firefight, it’s not staged like some a bullet-riddled action movie sequence. Few shots are fired. Voices are scarcely raised. It’s more about stealth than firepower. And yet, it’s one of the most nerve-shredding depictions of war you’re likely to witness.
With its careful avoidance of moralizing, politicizing and editorializing, Zero Dark Thirty functions almost as a work of reportage. It’s not your standard, disposable slice of Hollywood entertainment. Instead, it boldly, beautifully and unexpectedly crystalizes a complex story, leaving viewers to sort out the moral repercussions in their own mind. Good luck with that, America.
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