When the first trailers for Zero Dark Thirty were coming out, I met them with such skepticism. How could Hollywood possibly try to capitalize on one of the worst tragedies that has ever happened on American soil? I know it is business, but come on. A good friend of mine who served in the Navy shared my concern, thinking that whoever pitched this idea was being a little premature in glamorizing the hunt for Osama bin Laden. As it turns out, we were both premature in judging this film.
Kathryn Bigelow returns to the director’s chair in this extremely suspenseful story that follows the United States’ most elite group of intelligence and military operatives as they track down the man responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Bigelow has already proved her talents when she put out 2008’s The Hurt Locker, and here she is simply sharpening her vision. In two hours and forty minutes Bigelow manages to handle all the data, personnel, strategies, emotional ups-and-downs, the controversies, sacrifices and successes, and various other elements that made this mission one of the most difficult and dangerous — and she molds all of it into a rather compelling drama that turns out to be not your typical action-drama.
Without a doubt, a lot of what makes this film so tense and compelling is the sensitivity of its source material. Making a movie about hunting down the head of the terrorist group al-Qaeda is crazy enough. That this film is not a far cry from the realities of these real-life heroes — you can get a good sense of how certain discussions went in real life with the excellent and pointed conversations that comprise the bulk of Zero Dark Thirty — is surely Bigelow’s greater achievement here.
The film is presented as a broad timeline, spanning the decade during which America was on the hunt for the world’s most dangerous man. There are titles that introduce each section, and quite often somewhere within each segment a character or action references back to the name of said segment, hence giving the film not only a rather distanced vantage point on each main event that develops along the way, but the overall project ends up having a documentary kind of feel to it.
She begins the film with a series of brutal scenes that graphically depict America’s interrogation procedures in the first years of The War on Terror. Thanks to a strong cast including Jason Clarke, who plays Dan (one of the more zealous interrogators) and Jessica Chastain (Maya — I’ll get to her later, she’s fantastic) the initial half hour immerses us in the controversy of the nature of detainee treatment and America’s methods for acquiring information. The camera does not flinch from the moments of gurgling suffocation, a.k.a. water-boarding; it does not break away when Ammar (the detainee Dan and his crew focus on) is shoved into a tiny box when he continues to defy the Americans. Quite literally, the suspected connection to the terrorist organization is treated like a dog. As uncomfortable as these scenes make us, our attention has been grabbed, and it won’t really be let go for the duration of the film.
In a project that is ambitious as this, the details really have to be paid close attention to. Bigelow knows this, of course. She masterfully pieces together a complex puzzle that revolves around Chastain’s Maya and her role in the pinpointing and killing of Osama bin Laden in his fortress compound located in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Although the film lends fascinating, albeit controversial, insight into how the CIA was thinking and operating during this trying time, strangely enough we don’t get too personal with anyone in particular. Not even Maya, whose antisocial tendencies more than definitely helped pave the road — metaphorically and literally — to the compound where the ailing bin Laden was hiding out. I suppose her character is the closest we get to empathizing with in this movie, but it goes without saying we already know how we’re going to be feeling going into this thing.
That feeling of anxiety and despair, of anger and bitterness is further heightened in the opening minute or two, when we hear multiple panicked phone calls made by the victims trapped in the World Trade Center on that fateful day. Perhaps no other scene in the movie zeroes in on the details like this scene, complete with a simple black screen that only serves to exaggerate the desperation you hear in these audio tracks.
Following the torture scenes, we are quickly swept up by a long second act that is densely packed with information regarding how the CIA, particularly Maya, went about breaking down the barriers to information that stood for so long. If you’re coming into this film expecting two hours of nonstop action, prepare to be sorely mistaken, as the action — apart from the occasional bomb explosion and random acts of violence in pockets of the Middle East where Maya and her team find themselves in — more or less settles down until the exhilarating final third of the film where the Navy SEAL mission is enacted in a real-time sequence.
However our trusted filmmakers here have come under some fire both from critics of the film and of high-ranking governmental officials. There’s been all kinds of hoopla about the “enhanced interrogation techniques” on display early on in the film; that Zero Dark Thirty inaccurately links these scenes to the CIA gaining leverage over key terrorist connections — apparently water-boarding was not used to the extent that this film would have you believe. Still others want to dismiss the role of Maya, insisting that this character is really a composite of several key CIA agents who helped bring bin Laden to his knees. I am quicker to agree to that, than any other argument opposing this film’s accuracy.
Of course this film would be controversial, though. I don’t think it would be nearly as good if it didn’t create a stir. Of course it would raise some questions about the true nature of this 10-year manhunt. I don’t think a war film has ever gone gently into that good night. Even with all these questions flying around, you still can’t deny how thoroughly engaging this piece of work is. I’m not really in a position where I can argue for or against its accuracies (I guess I could do some research) but I believe I do have the authority to judge whether or not this would be a film worth watching or not. Being an ex-SEAL, or ex-anything-governmental probably would bring down the entertainment factor. So as a innocent bystander, a movie critic, I have but one thing to say: relative to the world of Bigelow’s work, this is an extremely believable and accurate story, one that takes us out of the comforts of our homes in the U.S. and deep into the heart of darkness; into the backyards of our enemies.
Because the film doesn’t play out as a character-study, or develop any of its characters to any extent — again, the closest we really get to anyone is Maya, whom we are following throughout the entire film — the final act, the actual mission where the Navy SEALS are bringing the fire directly to bin Laden, is all the more effective. It is realistic and white-knuckle suspense. Going in for “the man on the third floor,” as the SEALS call bin Laden when they’re in his hideout, the final assault is believable as a relatively small covert op that drags behind it the weight of the world. The implications of a failure here would be disastrous on the grandest scale. When the doors are being blown open, the world is watching using night vision goggles. It’s intense and, surprisingly, as popcorn-entertainment as Bigelow is going to allow her effort to get.
While I can understand exactly where people might take issues with the way certain sections of this film play out — whether its with the exact types of “enhanced interrogation” techniques that are used throughout, or whether or not you can assume that all these beatings and other punishments ultimately led to detainees eventually caving (some reports say that only top-wanted detainees who were not cooperating whatsoever got water-boarded with approval from Washington) — its much easier to let all of that go in your mind and sit back and watch this spectacle unfold. And the timing of its release, honestly, is nothing short of perfect. Let another decade, or even five years get in between its release and the capturing and killing of bin Laden (in May of 2011) and you might risk a stagnating sense of indifference toward the event beginning to form. While it’s fresh on everyone’s mind, you have the best chance of success.
Recommendation: Definitely an important film, and the final product is nothing like what the first trailers were first giving the impression of. For anyone who has served in the armed forces, I think an asterisk could be placed on its theater marquee just to caution, ‘Hey, come for the experience, not for all the facts.’ Of course, that’s not to say this movie is chockfull of lies, either.
Running Time: 157 mins.
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