Into the darkness
Hunt for bin Laden makes for tense, suspenseful thriller
Originally, Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriting partner Mark Boal intended to make a film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden as the follow-up to their Oscar-winner, The Hurt Locker. When bin Laden was killed in May 2011, their unfinished project took on the burden of another dimension of meaning and finality.
The Navy SEALs’ night-time raid on the compound in Abbottabad provides the inevitable and unavoidable conclusion to that tale, but Zero Dark Thirty remains, in most respects, a story (but not necessarily the story) of the hunt for bin Laden. Bigelow establishes a general tone of historical reportage early on, and much of the film plays out as a CIA/military procedural.
The details of a decade-long search come to us in pell-mell bits and pieces. An agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain) plays the key behind-the-scenes role in all this, and it’s chiefly through her that the search story takes on some dramatic coherence and immediacy. The film presents her as an individual focal point in a narrative that has a good many potential protagonists in passing, but no standard-issue hero figures whatsoever.
Even with the story’s outcome known in advance, Zero Dark Thirty is a riveting and unusually suspenseful tale through all of its 157-minute running time. A significant part of that tension is over how these events will be portrayed—over what we’ll be shown and how much. And intertwined with that is the tension that derives from the paradoxes of Maya’s role—she is at once a catalytic figure and a distant bystander, a crucial hands-on participant but also a somewhat isolated cog in the machinery of black-ops espionage.
The resulting film is mainly concerned with the workings of that machinery, and so a lot of it is a mixture of docudrama and intermittently violent military thriller. It has a small multitude of striking characters, most of them only briefly sketched, but not even Maya’s part of the action qualifies as full-on character study.
Nevertheless, the portrayal of Maya is one of the most intriguing aspects of the film. While her single-minded devotion to the task is of course crucial to the final outcome, Bigelow’s direction and Chastain’s performance create a profoundly ironic impression—Maya is an extraordinarily gifted operative, but those gifts are all she has in an otherwise devastatingly lonely life.
And that paradoxical perspective carries over into nearly everything else in the film. Even the seemingly neutral portrayals of torture (“enhanced interrogation”) have conflicting undercurrents, and the killing of bin Laden is envisioned in intense but emphatically unheroic terms.
It’s also particularly noteworthy that Boal’s screenplay gives considerable prominence to the role of blind chance and arbitrary risk in all this. Bigelow’s shrewd direction brings haunting ambiguities into nearly everything including the identification of bin Laden, at the end.