Zero Dark Thirty is a gut-wrenching film. Not because of the controversy that has riled up so many, but for the sheer magnitude of depth it goes into in chronicling the 10-year hunt for one of the most evil people ever to draw breath on this planet. Director Kathryn Bigelow, who has, up until The Hurt Locker, made stylish, adrenaline-fueled action films like Point Break, Strange Days, and Blue Steel, has emerged onto the scene as a refined filmmaker with a storytelling structure mirroring that of the directors we’ve lauded over for decades. In essence, she has solidified herself as a filmmaker to contend with.
Zero Dark Thirty opens with a black screen, while audio from the phone calls of the victims of 9/11 play in the dark. We’ve seen the towers hit and crumbling many times over. Hearing the voices of all involved on that day is something just as impactful. The film then launches directly into a torture sequence, which is one of many that have sent varying individuals into a spasm of moral conflict and outrage. The scenes are certainly intense, and may call into question your own beliefs, depending on what type of person you are.
I’m a former Soldier and current patriot of the Unites States, so my view on it is absolutely different than, say, a liberal-minded pacifist or someone from another country. I have heard many arguments across the Internet about these scenes and the general feeling that ZDT evokes. Is it pro-torture? Is it anti-torture? I never got a feeling for either. I never felt a bias in one single frame of ZDT. I felt like it showed things as they happened without ever taking a moment to let us know how to feel. It’s one of the crowning achievements of the film, really. It lets us be a part of this journey without leading us to feel one way or the other about it; you decide for yourself. It’s kind of a beautiful restraint and so rare to see in Hollywood.
People with political agendas, however, will find it easy to steer ZDT into their own personal beliefs. After all, people with agendas are never really seeking the truth; they are seeking whatever piece of information that can rally to their cause, rather than looking at something from every vantage point. In the end, however, the torture sequences serve to move the story along. Why? Because they happened, whether you like it or not. Did they absolutely lead to finding Bin Laden? Unless you were there, you’ll probably never really know. Regardless, it happened, like it or not.
I don’t want to go down a rabbit hole on the issue, because really, it’s not worth it. There will always be the soft-skinned who believe that there is some other way and there will always be the hard-skinned who believe it’s the only way. I won’t settle the debate in a movie review and it’s not the place for it.
The film follows the narrative of Maya, a fresh out-of-college CIA agent who is immediately assigned the Bin Laden case. She is the very definition of tenacity and obsession, with everything in her world becoming the hunt for one man. The film jumps in large gaps, with two wars going on simultaneously, trotting the globe back and forth from Washington D.C., Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, etc. Jessica Chastain, the red-haired, fair-skinned actress most notable for her performance in The Help, plays Maya, bringing a fierce, intense, and admirable presence to the character. You want her to succeed, you want her to get her guy, and you know it’s not going to be easy. Chastain has a hard beauty to her, with strong looks and near translucent eyebrows that give her the quality of an enigma amongst the people that surround her, whether they are in suits or manjamas. She is the definitive black sheep, but one that refuses, absolutely, to be put out. It’s an amazing thing to watch Chastain embody Maya, from start to finish. Bigelow and Mark Boal (the screenwriter of both ZDT and The Hurt Locker) chose well in their focus on Maya and casting Chastain as the one to live in her shoes.
There are a number of jolting scenes in ZDT that serve as reminders of just what the CIA is attempting to stop as the years pass by, reminding us that Bin Laden may be in hiding, but his influence, both directly and indirectly, is very much present. From terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia to London to Pakistan to Afghanistan, the reminders of the effect of Bin Laden’s reach are made painfully aware.
The movie follows along in chapter breaks, leading the narrative much like a novel, rather than a movie. I don’t think it was necessary, but it doesn’t hurt the film in any way (I don’t even recall them showing the title). Chastain is bolstered with co-stars Jason Clarke, as a lead interrogator, Kyle Chandler as her station chief boss, Jennifer Ehle, as a colleague, and later with Mark Strong as her new boss, and Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton as Seal Team Six operators whom she befriends. There is a cavalcade of familiar-face theater, with a number of quality actors popping in and out in small roles, which greatly enhances the film, giving it even more clout.
Clarke is a piercing figure in the film, his interrogation scenes being the toughest of the bunch. He ultimately sets the stage and you come to both admire and fear him for what he does. Some, I’m sure, will hate him, but again that depends on which side of the spectrum you fall on with the issue. Everyone else is top notch, never missing a beat. They all felt in the moment, a part of the world at that very second. I never felt like I was stuck in a drag-ass scene with a half-hearted performance.
As Maya chases down the one link she believes that will lead her to Bin Laden, pissing off everyone in her path and creating an obsession that robs her of any kind of normal life, the stakes feel greater and greater. There’s a lot of cat-and-mouse as the people around her work to find her guy. It’s never suggested that she does it alone; quite the opposite, actually. And when her moment comes, you feel the queasiness that she does, because it’s a gamble, even though we already know it paid off.
For me, the most powerful scenes were of the moments just before and during the raid. I was not a SEAL, but I was Soldier, and one that conducted many raids and combat operations. The feelings you get just before going on any mission are tense, adrenaline-filled, and uneasy. It’s a feeling unlike any other, that’s for sure, and seeing these guys load up and prep for the mission stirred up all the old emotions, for better or worse. I felt, once again, that I was back there, hearing the helo blades chopping the air, the dust kicking into the sky, and the calm silence that envelopes you once you’ve left the nest. It’s a surreal moment, one that I’ve come to not miss. However, seeing this movie put me right back in that frame of mind and it felt, again, that I was there.
This is a testament to the attention to detail Bigelow paid to the film. She thought about that moment; the prep, the takeoff, and the flight to the compound. It’s very much like the journey to the safe house in Ridley Scott’s Blackhawk Down, just before the shit hits the fan. The night-vision goggle view of the raid and subsequent taking down of Bin Laden is handled in near real time, with the events unfolding very much like a real operation. I could feel people in the audience wincing at the controlled pair shots that were delivered to downed bad guys, and knee-jerk jumps to every explosion. It was true to tactics, fierce, and almost poetic in watching the team do their work.
The scene of Bin Laden being killed happens without fanfare and goes along with the tactical operation. However, the significance of the action is recognized, just never glorified. By the end of the scene my heart was racing, as it had been from the very beginning, and the return of the SEALS and identification of Bin Laden’s body by Maya becomes the conclusion most Americans have sought. It’s a shame it took ten years and thousands of lives to do it, but in the end, the mastermind of the greatest terror attack on U.S. soil was brought to justice.
It’s hard not to diverge into that territory, because Zero Dark Thirty isn’t just a movie for me. It’s a narrative of something I was deeply embedded in. 9/11 changed my life forever, meaning that, ultimately, Bin Laden changed my life forever. Had 9/11 never happened it’s unlikely I would have ever joined the Army and gone to war. I have no idea who I would be today without that experience, be it a better or worse individual. Regardless, the man who deemed it necessary to kill thousands of Americans (and not just on 9/11) led to many Americans joining the military looking for revenge.
So, in that sense, I will always be a biased viewer for a film like this. It’s not a ra-ra revenge tale, but a very real picture of the journey, the politics, the process, and the fortitude of so many people to catch a single man, responsible for so much death. It’s a commentary on our nature, our nation, and our souls in the post 9/11 era.
ZDT is going to be a divisive film. For many it will be a hard watch. For many it will be treated as a revenge propaganda film and for others it will be something to use as “proof” that we “did bad things” to get what we needed to find Bin Laden. I think most will simply enjoy it as is. For those seeking to push an agenda with ZDT, either for or against, I say that you are lost in a political spectrum with no end in sight. It’s becoming a disease in this country (neigh, world), one that is bustling with agenda and lacking in solutions.
ZDT is a commentary, and a damned entertaining one, that should get your brain fired up. It should inspire everyone to read up on the facts and realities of the events that shaped 9/11 and the hunt for Bin Laden. It’s not as simple or black and white as many think. Get the facts, check the sources, and drop your agenda (Starting with No Easy Day by Mark Owen is a good start). It’s my hope that ZDT will inspire people to look deeper and further into what makes something like this happen and to ask themselves the tough questions about what they really believe to be right or wrong, especially as it pertains to war and the measure of retaliation. How many films have you seen lately that led you to ask questions like that?