The controversial Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow’s excellently crafted version of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, has a bunch of politicians and CIA officials crying foul. This makes me think the movie must contain some harsh truths and grim realities about the war on terror.
It’s virtually absent of politics, or any of that “America, fuck yeah!” nonsense. It gives a filmmaker’s interpretation of the steps that were taken, and the deeds that were done, to rid the world of a true menace. Many of those deeds are presented in a calm, calculated and perhaps even cold manner that is, at times, spooky to watch. The people depicted in this movie mean business, and will do whatever it takes to get a job done. That includes waterboarding and literally scaring the shit out of detainees.
The film starts with a black screen, and some terrifying messages left by 9/11 victims as they were close to death in the Twin Towers. The sequence definitely put me in that “OK, something needs to be done about this” mode that I, and many world residents, felt that day. It definitely sets the tone for the unsettling film.
We see Maya (Jessica Chastain) a new, determined CIA officer—apparently a composite character of actual people—on the Bin Laden case, about to witness a torture chamber. Dan (Jason Clarke), another CIA agent, will use waterboarding, isolation boxes, dog collars and psychological mind games to try and draw some names out of a strong-willed detainee (a powerful Reda Kateb). He eventually gets a big one, and a long hunt that will see many casualties, including CIA agents, begins in earnest.
Is the movie “pro torture”? I would say most definitely not. Is it “anti-torture”? It isn’t that either. The film is supposedly being investigated for using classified information when it comes to American interrogation tactics. What the film depicts seems like it could be pretty authentic. Thankfully, I am no expert on the matter.
This is a movie that leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether these types of interrogation methods were necessary in the pursuit of Bin Laden. But, and I want to make this perfectly clear, it’s a brutal exercise that Bigelow shows here—unsettling in many ways.
Zero Dark Thirty clocks in at 157 minutes, with all but 40 of those devoted to Maya’s behind-the-scenes, dogged pursuit of Public Enemy No. 1. The last 40 minutes completely switches gears, becoming an intense depiction of the Team Six mission that ended with “Geronimo.” All 157 minutes are top notch, provocative, incendiary filmmaking. Bigelow has most certainly topped herself, including her Oscar-winning effort The Hurt Locker.
As for the raid itself, it’s very dark and quiet. From the muffled “fwup, fwup, fwup” of the experimental helicopters—one of which crashed—as they swerve through mountain ranges, to the quick and decisive shots ending lives in that now very familiar white structure in Pakistan, it’s all very precise and stealthy. The aspect of the raid that unsettled me the most was the way Navy SEALS are depicted quietly and invitingly calling out the name “Osama?” before they shoot him.
Chastain, in just a couple of years, has become one of the world’s more dynamic, downright reliable actresses. From her Oscar nominated turn in The Help, to her beautiful supporting work in The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, she creates one memorable character after another. Maya is her crowning achievement, and should get her another Oscar nomination.
Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty is a film epic and efficient enough to be compared to the great films of Coppola, Scorsese and Kubrick. It’s an important and engaging piece of work from a director who looks like she’s just starting to hit her stride.