Zero Dark Thirty
It was inevitable that we would eventually have the “killing Bin Laden” movie, just as United 93 was bound to happen sooner or later. We could hope that it at least not be as crassly exploitative as some other 9/11-related movies. But nobody could have predicted in May of 2011 that it would actually be a truly great and well-made film, bracing and thoughtful and subtle by turns; that it could edify its built-in audience instead of pandering to them. Nobody could have predicted Zero Dark Thirty.
The story is pretty well-known by now: after cleaning up all the awards for The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow and her writer, Mark Boal, turned to direct her next film about the intelligence community engaged in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden — “UBL”, in the CIA’s clipped argot — in the mountains of Tora Bora. It was nuanced and equivocal, as her previous film had been, and right in the middle of it the very community she was studying had the temerity to find and kill their target. Instead of scrapping the project, Bigelow and Boal pivoted and wove this new ending into the existing story, which still deserved to be told on its own merits.
And so the first hour and a half or so are concerned with the hunt, particularly as seen through the eyes of “Maya” (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA officer assigned to Pakistan. The character is fictionalized, of course — the original point was to watch how she is shaped by her experiences rather than to have her serve as a mere audience-surrogate — but the process is sometimes disturbingly real.
Right off the bat, Maya is dropped into a team (including Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, and Harrold Perrineau) analyzing intelligence they obtain from detainee interrogations. Yes, this involves torture; no, at no point does the film imply that torture “works” to supply any given piece of information. The scenes can be intense, but if you’ve watched the news over the last decade it’s no worse than any of the other dramatized waterboardings that you’ve likely seen. It is something that happened, and Bigelow would be dishonest not to portray it; in fact, it is something we, as Americans, are complicit in, and those who would whitewash our own history are as deluded as those who believe that teenagers will abstain from sex if only we never tell them what it is.
In the process of her intelligence-gathering — and, again, not while torturing a detainee — Maya turns up a name which piques her interest: Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Interviews with other detainees seem to point to his role as a courier for UBL, and possibly a lead back to the target himself. But it’s a longshot, and others in the CIA believe resources could be better spent shutting down the cells at the other end of the Al Qaeda network that actually plan and execute attacks.
It would be very easy for this to slip into a familiar story: a character following a hunch in the face of heavy opposition from both her enemies and her supposed allies, and ultimately being vindicated. It’s especially easy since we already know the ending, and yet the film yields much more to those who remember that the conclusion was anything but foregone, even up to the raid on the Abbottabad compound itself.
It’s not only Boal’s writing and Bigelow’s direction that maintains this ambivalence, but one of Jessica Chastain’s best performances to date. What if Abu Ahmed really is a wild goose chase, and Maya is wasting time and resources on her single-minded obsession? Chastain’s performance lends itself just as well to that possibility. On top of that, we see Maya’s character change over the years, integrating the language and patterns she learned from her former boss as she interrogates prisoners. We see her flinch at a punch early on, and later view a live video feed of an IED attack with no more emotion than reviewing last night’s box scores.
Eventually, of course, we come to the raid itself, without which the film wouldn’t be half as popular. And yet here Bigelow also shows admirable discretion and restraint. As smoothly as the real thing went, it is still a brutal and ugly business, and Bigelow does not shrink from that reality. Again, it would have been easy to present the fist-pumping, chest-thumping display of American military prowess that doubtless many in the audience are hoping to see; what we see is cold, and even disgusting, even as we understand its necessity.
There is no joy here, but only maybe some small piece of anticlimactic closure, too little, too late to heal the trauma that came before. “Where do you want to go?” we are asked afterwards, and we still have no answer.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.