Zero Dark Thirty opens with a black screen and the sound of panicked voices. It is September 11, 2001 and the people working inside the World Trade Center that morning are calling loved ones and 911 operators, fearing the worst but still not knowing the real horror to come. Claustrophobic and unnerving, it is the briefest of introductions and the only explicit reference to 9/11, but with it director Kathryn Bigelow is reminding us of how we all felt that morning – the sense of confusion and shock which, in the days and weeks that followed, would transform into rage and the need for revenge.
From there, Zero Dark Thirty hits the ground running, taking us through the very dirty work of finding the man we held accountable for that day. Through the eyes of the participants, the film details ten ugly years that eventually lead to a single night in Pakistan where a team of Navy SEALS finished the job. A dramatization of the facts as best as Bigelow and her The Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal could assemble them, Zero Dark Thirty is part police procedural and part espionage thriller capped off by 40 minutes of intense action movie. It entertains, but by offering a clear-eyed, neutral look at some of the very worst of our actions in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the film is also does a great deal more. It transcends simple speech-making, instead requiring us to confront what happened and to decide for ourselves what was right and what was wrong. Bracingly, it doesn’t easily let us off the hook for our own complicity.
Playing a character supposedly based on a real woman, Jessica Chastain is Maya, a young CIA operative obsessed with putting together the pieces that will lead to Osama bin Laden. Jason Clarke plays CIA man Dan, a composite of several individuals and a seemingly conscienceless expert at the art of torture. Together they work on detainees who, in the murky moral and legal terrain of post-9/11, are whisked off to mysterious locations around the world and subjected to a nauseating array of physical and psychological brutalities in order to get them to give over information.
It is a slow, grueling, often fruitless process made complicated by the shifting political sands back home as one administration gives way to another. Maya endures however as the years drag on and eventually, mostly through the hard work of traditional intelligence combined with a few happy accidents, the pieces fall into place and bin Laden’s location is discovered with an acceptable degree of certainty, or at least enough certainty to call in the SEAL team.
After wading us through the moral fog of the investigation itself, Bigelow doesn’t cop out in the end with a rousing action payoff designed to send you out of the theater in a patriotic adrenalin rush. Dark and claustrophobic, bin Laden’s compound is a maze of hallways and floors populated by unknown women and children whose screams never let you feel good about what you know is going to happen. It is tense and thrilling but also unnerving and deeply disturbing. Exactly when the kill happens is not entirely clear. There’s no special emphasis on it nor any music cues calculated to tell you how to feel about what you’re seeing.
That lack of calculation is the key to both the controversy that has sprung up around the film’s depictions and also of its ultimate brilliance. As much as any film can, Zero Dark Thirty never forces you into an opinion about whether what you’re seeing is right and wrong. To lay blame or point fingers would be to let the audience itself off the hook, to absolve it of complicity in the actions taken by our government. This is a movie as much about our own feelings over events as they unfold as it is about the events themselves. It’s a sounding board and a conversation starter about one of the most important decades in our country’s history. 9/11 and bin Laden in a way are just MacGuffins. What is important is how we responded to them as a nation and, when all the ugly facts are known, whether we are OK with how it all went down.
Contrary to claims, Zero Dark Thirty never makes the case that torture was a necessary part of finding bin Laden. The actual trail of evidence and the means by which that evidence was procured are at all times muddy and unclear as depicted in the film. What is a fact is that torture happened and, in the early going, Zero Dark Thirty rubs your face in it. It is unsettling in ways that simply reading about torture can never be. While not especially bloody or harsh compared to what we see in ordinary horror movies, the scenes are harrowing and you continually have to confront the idea that these things really happened in the name of the country in which we’ve been taught to be proud. It will come as a shock to a lot of people and it should.
What is interesting and perhaps a little disconcerting is that Zero Dark Thirty works rather brilliantly as pure entertainment. As an espionage thriller, it out Bournes the Bourne series and the suspenseful raid sequence at the end is as good as anything from the best action movie. Just because it is gripping, engaging and entertaining, however, don’t think for a moment that Zero Dark Thirty is content simply to amuse its audience for a couple of fleeting hours. While distracting you with crackling action and suspense, the film meanwhile drills down into your own conscience and then leaves you to decide for yourself what you find. What happened? What did we really achieve and, more importantly, at what cost to ourselves and our nation? Working on the surface while gut punching you with what’s going on underneath, inviting you to be thrilled by outcomes while horrifying you on the path to achieving them, Zero Dark Thirty is more than just a total of its component parts. As a chillingly honest portrayal of a vital part of our history and of our collective mindset, it is the movie of the year.
Filed under: Review