Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
After taking a micro-look at the perils and price of the Iraq war with 2010’s Academy Award-winning “The Hurt Locker,” screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal and Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow broaden their scope to show an unconventional war on a massive scale.
“Zero Dark Thirty” traces with precision and fascinating detail the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
As the opening title card states, the filmmakers based the movie on first-hand accounts of actual events, though there has been much uproar about the veracity of every detail. “Zero Dark Thirty” plays like a documentary, a visual timeline, as the filmmakers reveal answers to questions most Americans have wondered since the day the world’s most feared terrorist was killed. Who led the charge? How did they do it? What were the details? Why did it take so long?
But there is no narrator or invisible director asking questions of its subject in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
The story begins in a disturbing darkness. Black-box audio from airplanes and 911 phone calls give horrifying accounts of the chaos set loose on 9/11. This is where it all began, the filmmakers remind us. This is why the next 150-plus minutes are so important to us. The movie matters. You’ve bought in from the first seconds.
The film jumps ahead two years to a CIA black-ops site overseas where the Saudi Group is at work. This leap forward is a technique the filmmakers use throughout “Zero Dark Thirty.” So little of the movie takes place in America and skips over the failures, fear and mundanity inherent with a near-invisible war. We catch important glimpses of the international mission and are left to imagine and remember the spaces in between.
People experienced the trauma in their own ways at home. This movie is about what was going on out of sight, often away from the glare of the news media and even American government and bureaucratic leaders.
At the black-ops site, rough-hewn American agent Dan (Jason Clarke) delivers a stark reminder of some of the ugliest parts of the war on terror. He brutalizes, both physically and mentally, a detainee. He wants information, and when he doesn’t get it, he hurts his subject.
Dan moves and speaks with an unsettling mixture of ease and anger. He has done this dance with the detainee before. Maybe for days. Maybe for months. You sense his frustration, as he waterboards the victim, strings him from the walls and gets close into his face and tells him, “This is what defeat looks like, bro. Your jihad is over.”
Except it’s not. Not even close.
Riding shotgun on the interrogation is ivory-skinned Maya (Jessica Chastain), a new arrival to the Saudi Group. Her disturbed but determined gaze during the interrogation serves as an analogy for the American people. She knows the behavior is inhumane and illegal, but she wants answers. She wants bin Laden.
The graphically realized torture scenes, which feature incredible acting on both sides of the punishment, take up much of the first act and have led to finger-wagging op-ed pieces declaring the film approves of enhanced interrogation techniques. I will not wade too deeply into the political waters, and discussing the collection of bread crumbs along the bin Laden trail takes some of the mystery from the film, but one must first see “Zero Dark Thirty” before making any swift judgments. I didn’t see the film as glorifying torture. Bigelow shows the heinous act because it is part of our history.
“Zero Dark Thirty” does not give the impression that torture led directly to major leads, but it does contend that torture played a role. The fact that that role, specifically in one scene, has been amplified for the purposes of storytelling may earn the film some just criticism, but the real breakthroughs in capturing bin Laden came through outwitting the enemy, bribery, and collecting and piecing together microscopic information.
The film and the mission feel like a massive puzzle in which every piece looks like an unhelpful bit of blue sky. We’re searching for a corner piece, a glimpse of grass or a person’s face to help make sense of the invisible danger.
After her interrogations, Maya joins the base of operations with the CIA team at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. Running the show there is Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), a stern and slightly cocky man who oversees a group of workers following every scintilla of a lead in a hunt that often feels as if it’s gone cold.
As we come to find out later, finding bin Laden has been Maya’s sole duty since joining the CIA. We don’t find out much about Maya the person, excepting the glimpses of her personality we see in her personal relationships with a few CIA members abroad. We discover the CIA recruited her from high school, and she has spent the past 12 years of her life (meaning time that predates 9/11) devoted to the capture of bin Laden. It is mildly ironic that a woman named Maya, which means “illusion” in Sanskrit, spends her life chasing a man as elusive as a ghost.
That monomania makes for a flat character at times, but just when Maya seems to be something of a cypher, Chastain allows her to explode with frustration or warm ever-so-briefly with sympathy.
Acts of terror rock the movie’s bumpy road to bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, as Maya’s patience and determination are tested by her spectral target as well as CIA and administration officials. With each setback, Maya redoubles her efforts. She delivers a few lines that on first viewing seem melodramatic, but they actually get to the heart of her sole purpose.
After using a host of techniques and a team of operatives on the ground in Pakistan to determine what they believe to be bin Laden’s compound, the movie enters its third act. When Seal Team 6 is introduced, the dutiful procedural picks up pace.
Alpha males Patrick (Australian actor Joel Edgerton) and Justin (Chris Pratt) serve as the focal point for the team that will execute one of the most important covert missions in American military history.
Having spent two hours leading the audience to the finale, Bigelow and Boal could have sped through the final events. Fortunately, they take their time, showing the soldiers in each stage of their nighttime mission. The depiction of the human element behind the world-changing events of “Zero Dark Thirty” elevates the movie from epic historical document to moving personal drama.
When the team reaches the bin Laden compound, after a thrilling helicopter ride across the Pakistan border, much of the action is rendered in green-hued night vision.
Despite knowing how the attack ends, the tight confines of the mission and the danger lurking behind every closed door make for a breathless cinematic experience.
With the historic and decade-long mission accomplished, Bigelow ends the film with a stirring scene that leaves Maya serving as a proxy for the American people.
The title of the “Zero Dark Thirty” refers to the military time of the mission (30 minutes after midnight), but it also alludes to the darkness that America and the world entered following 9/11. As the film closes, Maya and the audience experience a catharsis. There appears some speck of light at the end of the long nightmarish tunnel. But a question lingers: “What now?”