Zero Dark Thirty | Movie review
Kathryn Bigelow crafts a riveting account of the hunt for bin Laden.
Zero Dark Thirty begins by noting its basis in firsthand accounts, then launches into audio recordings from September 11. Few films have had the gall to include the latter; an appalling 2002 short by Alejandro González Iñárritu is the main one that comes to mind. Flash forward two years to a CIA black site, where a detainee is being brutalized by an agent.
No, Kathryn Bigelow isn’t engaging in false equivalency. She’s setting the stakes: Her movie is determined to show us what went on, between the moment the world called for Osama bin Laden’s head and the moment we finally got it. As the lengthy first-act “enhanced interrogations” continue, the less they resemble an amped-up episode of Homeland and the more it becomes clear these images have been missing from our national discourse. The outrage over Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, has the country seriously confronted rendition, dog collaring, forced nudity and untold other horrors?
Op-ed writers—and even John McCain on the Senate floor—have accused Zero Dark Thirty of condoning torture. But Bigelow, hardly apolitical, makes her point by showing: This is something that happened. It was perpetrated in our names. Here’s what it looks like. And while the film doesn’t explicitly deny torture’s role in finding bin Laden—there’s a suggestion sleep deprivation helped—the human toll remains front and center. Even during the raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound, the precision of the SEALs’ mission contrasts with the cries of women and children who live there.
The decade-spanning Zero Dark Thirty comes freighted with a historical weight it bears amazingly well. Still, it’s useful to separate the film from expectations. It follows one CIA analyst, Maya, said to be modeled on an unidentified agent who spent years focusing exclusively on bin Laden. Played by Jessica Chastain with a masterful balance of tenacity and restraint, the character is defined only through her obsessive search. Recruited out of high school and apparently present for interrogations just a few years later, she remains an enigma. Asked about her life, she refuses to engage.
Bigelow gravitates toward single-minded heroes: Jeremy Renner’s Hurt Locker bomb defuser was likewise all business. Maya’s sense of mission carries us across eight years, through an unconventional structure and a revolving cast. No other movie has so thoroughly portrayed the day-to-day of intelligence gathering—not just in military camps but offices, kitchenettes and file rooms. As a colleague (Jennifer Ehle) awaits the start of an interrogation, she and Maya instant-message each other: “wassup you talking yet?”
Journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal (who also wrote The Hurt Locker) did original, reportedly CIA-aided research, quickly reworking his initial Tora Bora–based scenario after May 1, 2011. With Soderberghian title cards as orientation, the movie is ingeniously contructed as a procedural. It’s also provocatively insulated from politics at home. Obama appears only once, as the analysts turn from a meeting to watch a snippet of 60 Minutes.
The Abbottabad raid proves again that Bigelow directs action with a clarity her contemporaries lack. This year hasn’t given us a more riveting or instructive half-hour than the one in which SEALs enter the compound and wind their way to the third floor. Even when they shoot the “jackpot,” it’s matter-of-fact—just something that happens. (Boal has described the movie as a “hybrid of the filmic and the journalistic.”) Maya gets the final word—note the colors behind her in the closing shot—as her globe-trotting quest concludes and she ponders where to go next.
Zero Dark Thirty opens Friday 4.