A change of plans. That’s what became of the project director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal were working on when news broke about the death of Osama bin Laden. At the time they were about to head into production for a film about the Battle of Tora Bora and the unsuccessful attempt to capture UBL. Like an investigation that veers in a different direction after a new piece of evidence is discovered, their entire focus changed. As soon as bin Laden’s passing hit the newsfeeds an overriding sense of euphoria had entered the minds of most Americans. However, in the months that followed, the jubilation once felt would sour and be replaced with more political dissonance.
Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t show the fallout from the death of bin Laden; it’s ending is succinct in as much as a decade-long search can be. The lasting image of the film, of a woman sitting alone and sobbing, doesn’t need description. She has dedicated years of her life searching for this man, and now that it’s over the awful things she has experienced come rushing out in the form of tears. The terrorist leader’s demise is but a momentary feeling of exhalation and by no means signals the end. Not for the country that spent billions and saw thousands of men die in the process, nor for the men who killed him. The end game is not in his death but what comes next. And that’s a story that’s still being written.
But where does one even begin to chronicle the greatest manhunt in history? Leave it to Mark Boal, a former investigative journalist, to scour through mountains of documents and first-person accounts and take that information to structure a political thriller that manages to be thrilling even though we already know the outcome. Depending on whom you ask, the left will view the film as being “pro-torture,” while the right will see it as nothing more than propaganda to benefit the Obama Administration. However, Zero Dark Thirty is not a political football. The principals involved are more concerned with the task they’ve been assigned; they aren’t worried about Gallup polls or upcoming elections.
The film may have been culled from fact, but it is still a docudrama, not a documentary. Fictional embellishments are expected. Nevertheless, there’s an overriding sense that the filmmakers tried to tell as honest a story as they could with as many truths that could be allowed. Some Republican leaders were concerned that the Obama Administration provided the filmmakers with classified information about the raid and the CIA investigation. That should tell you how worried some were with the film’s development. (The suspicions were investigated but no security breach was found.)
The majority of what has been spoken and written about Zero Dark Thirty isn’t for Jessica Chastain’s performance, which is remarkable by the way, but deals with the depiction of torture. Just because the film concerns itself with scenes of torture by no means makes it pro-torture propaganda. If anything, Bigelow’s direction eschews such sentiment because of its honesty and transparency. Torture is not something to glamorize. The interrogators who participate in such acts may be driven by the “greater good,” yet their actions show how ruthless the practice is, for both the victim and the operatives. Chastain plays one of the CIA field agents, Maya, who is thrust into the search for bin Laden after the events of 9/11. She seems in over her head, but after silently witnessing a waterboarding session by fellow operative Dan (Jason Clarke), a special-agent bureaucrat says later she can handle the “hard stuff…Washington says she’s a ‘killer.’” Dan is methodical during each session in an attempt to break the detainee into divulging the information he needs to get him that much closer to locating Osama bin Laden. What the Zero Dark Thirty torture dissidents fail to realize is that the process is ineffective. The film proves this point. One piece of information that Maya obtains doesn’t come from a detainee being waterboarded or stuffed into a wooden box; it comes from old-fashioned deception which sees the detainee become deflated once he learns that a supposed terrorist act had failed when in reality it did occur. Without access to the outside world he believes what he hears to be the truth and thus becomes more cooperative.
Years into the search the so-called “detainee program” unceremoniously ends; the only indicator is Maya and others watching President Barack Obama’s first postelection interview from 60 Minutes where he says that America doesn’t torture. By this point Maya is fully invested in the cause and changes her tactics to spur the investigation along. She is our gateway to this world and through her we see the lengths she’s willing to go. Over the course of the years-long search we learn little of Maya’s past or where she is headed. But we understand her situation by the way her demeanor changes throughout the investigation. Sensing a lowly operative at first, it comes as a surprise that she is able to be cold and calculating when she needs to be and fuming hot when she doesn’t get her way. Maya’s defining characteristic is her obsession. Fully committed to the hunt for bin Laden she has her superiors on edge because of her steadfastness.
Kathryn Bigelow may have made history when she took home top directing honors for her film The Hurt Locker, but she may have topped herself with this film, able to condense so much information into a two-and-a-half hour film. Much of that credit goes to Boal’s script, which already assumes the audience has a passing knowledge of the hunt for bin Laden. Some viewers might get confused by the minutiae of abbreviations (e.g., ISI) or terms like “tradecraft,” but the dialogue isn’t so jargon-heavy that it becomes difficult to follow. In terms of passages of time, Bigelow has title cards that serve as chapter markers and act as a way the audience can acclimate themselves to a new story point.
Getting back to Jessica Chastain’s performance as Maya, it’s amazing how far she has come as an actress in such a short period of time. After subtle standout performances in films like Take Shelter and Tree of Life, she gets her juiciest role to date as a CIA agent defined by her obsessive qualities. Her investigative prowess and determination puts her up there with Jodie Foster’s performance as FBI agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. Both are procedural, investigative pieces, but ZDT has real-world implications. Chastain anchors the film as a hardass agent, but her performance isn’t all gung-ho. When a fellow agent dies, she doesn’t go all Ezekiel 25:17 (to borrow from Pulp Fiction).
There is an interesting correlation with the endings of both The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Both involve our protagonists on cargo planes, yet different circumstances. Jeremy Renner’s character in The Hurt Locker begins another tour of duty as part of the U.S. Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, unable to live the life of a civilian and all the mundane responsibilities that come with it. Maya, on the other hand, sits pensively after her mission has been completed and is at a loss when asked where does she want to go.
Much of the marketing of the film has emphasized the SEAL team assault on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Bigelow masterfully shows the infiltration by members of SEAL Team Six switching back and forth from nearly total darkness to night vision. Alexander Desplat’s score, which is very nuanced in its usage, is dropped in favor of the sounds of the operation. The tension increases as the men systematically make their way into the stronghold and encounter the enemy within.
More than the torture sessions or the Navy SEALs raiding bin Laden’s compound, though, Zero Dark Thirty serves as an engrossing character study and a great investigative procedural. Much like All the President’s Men and Zodiac the film is a cinematic tribute to the harrowing search for the truth. In the case of ZDT it was the chase to find a man who instigated the deadliest terrorist attack on United States soil. Through one character we relive what it was like to get caught up in the hunt and how sometimes it is hard to see the forest through the trees. What’s done is done. Just remember what it took to get to this point.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Notable Cast: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, James Gandolfini, Mark Duplass
Writer(s): Mark Boal