December 20, 2012
Zero Dark Thirty marks a cinematic breakthrough into the realm of journalism. Just a year and a half after the Navy SEAL assault that brought Osama bin Laden’s life to a bloody conclusion, The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow has brought the story to the screen, using extensive research and aid from the White House. President Obama evidently thought this film, which has a gripping documentary feel, would be released before the election and make him look good, but it turns out he was wrong on both counts. Zero Dark Thirty (military slang for the wee hours of the morning when the attack took place) makes Obama appear somewhere between irrelevant and counterproductive in the intelligence mission that led to Bin Laden’s demise.
Young star Jessica Chastain, who last year got an Oscar nomination for The Help, gives another awards-caliber performance as a 30-year-old CIA agent named Maya who has spent 12 years tracking Bin Laden, ever since she was recruited out of high school. At CIA black sites in Pakistan and Afghanistan, she actively participates in brutal interrogation techniques including forced sleep deprivation, beatings and waterboarding. These procedures are shown as essential to learning of the existence of a courier, Abu Ahmed, whose trail would eventually lead to Bin Laden’s fortress-like lair in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
President Obama is referred to obliquely as someone who demands factual certainty (without which, it is implied, he won’t give the go-ahead for the assault, which is worrisome enough) but doesn’t appear in the film except in a clip from a real-life news program. In the clip, Obama is shown disavowing torture, which would seem to pose a major obstacle to the CIA agents watching him on television. They know too well that meddling from politicians who have no idea how difficult it is to obtain intelligence from career terrorists could easily nullify their efforts. Obama comes off looking like a weak, oblivious fool who places his own preening above the national interest. Like I said: This movie is practically a documentary.
Bigelow’s film does have a few problematic aspects. Every so often the script (by Mark Boal) gives Maya some Rambo-like lines that ring false. At a high-level meeting with a senior-level intelligence executive played by James Gandolfini, she introduces herself to the suits by shouting, “I’m the motherf—er who found that,” meaning Bin Laden’s hideaway. At another point, she tells Navy SEAL Team Six that she has found Bin Laden and “You’re going to kill him for me.” If Maya, or a Maya-like figure, told the SEALS that in reality, I have a feeling they laughed in her face and said something like, “Thanks little lady, but we’re going to kill him for God and country, and for us, not for you.”
Another failing of the movie is that the SEALS don’t enter into it until the last 45 minutes. The raid is depicted viscerally, using the look of night-vision goggles that practically put us into the helmets of the assault squad, but the SEALS don’t receive their proper due. They come across as highly trained professionals, about whom we know next to nothing as individuals. Nor does Bigelow show the intensive training and preparation work that must have gone into the raid; she is far more interested in the Maya character than in the courageous men who actually took down Bin Laden. We’ll have to wait for another movie to give SEAL Team Six the starring role it deserves.
Still, the overall impact of Zero Dark Thirty renders its weaker points forgivable. Bigelow, who was an action-movie director before she ventured into Oscar bait movies, keeps the pace thrumming so that the two-and-a-half-hour running time doesn’t seem like a long sit. And she made a fairly courageous choice not to appease Hollywood’s left-wing Oscar voters by including any pious speeches about the morality behind the CIA’s rough interrogation procedures. What she shows is for the most part a totally believable recreation of how the CIA found out about the courier, how they tracked him down (using such clever schemes as obtaining his mother’s phone number in Kuwait from a degenerate Arab party boy who traded the number for a yellow Lamborghini) and how they found him (by tracing his cell phone in Pakistan). Each step of this procedural thriller is shown with the kind of you-are-there intensity that makes Zero Dark Thirty one of the best pictures of the year. That the story is true makes the movie even more essential.