“Zero Dark Thirty“
Starring Jessica Chastain & Joel Eggerton
Directed by Katherine Bigelow
R, 157 min.
This gripping Oscar-nominated drama about America’s decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden was making sparks fly even before it hit the screen.
Focusing on the single-minded efforts of a determined young CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain) to find the terrorist leader responsible for the attacks of 9/11, the film delves into the protracted, expensive, super-secretive, and sometimes brutally ugly pursuit of the man who for ten years topped America’s most-wanted list.
Even before it was officially released, some politicians and CIA insiders were worked into a lather about how director Katherine Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (who previously collaborated, with tremendous results, on “The Hurt Locker”) must have had unauthorized access to classified information to make it, how the movie would surely get the details wrong, or how its stripes would certainly wave too far to the left or too far to the right.
But the results, in fact, are decidedly non-partisan, grittily realistic and masterfully made, and the filmmakers have defended their sources as legitimate. Any creative license they may have taken are difficult, if not impossible, to compare with the factual record, the official details of which will likely remain in governmental and military shadows. And they’ve delivered one awesomely effective wallop of a movie.
As Maya, a character known only by her first name but based on a real-life CIA counter-terrorism agent, Chastain is outstanding. She’s been nominated alongside the picture for a Best Actress Oscar, and she just brought home a Golden Globe.
Bigelow, using locations in production-friendly India to fill in for Pakistan and Afghanistan, creates a painstakingly detailed narrative that’s riveting in its sense of reality. One terrorist bombing, in particular, takes the audience by as much of a surprise as its victims, jolting viewers in their seats.
The movie doesn’t flinch from its depiction of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” deployed at the CIA-operated detainee sites. The opening scenes, in which an Iraqi terrorist suspect is bound, beaten, waterboarded, shackled into a dog collar, led by a leash and finally folded into an isolation box, are wrenchingly difficult to watch.
That same suspect later gives up a piece of information that begins Maya’s long, winding, frustrating but ultimately successful path to bin Laden. Is the movie excusing, or exposing, the use of torture in fighting terrorism? That’s just one of many things it leaves for viewers to decide.
When does the risk of doing something outweigh the risk not doing anything? What are the costs of revenge, and the personal expense of answering a higher call? Where will the “war on terror” take us next, geographically, emotionally and ideologically?
The film’s final half hour, a meticulously orchestrated re-creation of the nighttime raid on bin Laden’s compound, seems harrowingly authentic, as we ride alongside with the SEALS in their Black Hawk helicopters, pop out onto the rooftop, burst into the hallways and head up the stairs to the “jackpot”—along for every step of the way, seeing much of it as they surely did, through the otherworldly green glow of their night-vision goggles.
We know how this story ended. But watching it methodically unfold from the perspective of a behind-the-scenes player you never knew existed might open you up to some intriguing new strands of America’s new-world-order DNA—and Maya’s empty silence, in the final scene, should be the starting point, rather than the conclusion, for even more to think about after the credits roll on this powerful, potent, important movie.