Zero Dark Thirty

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring:  Jessica Chastain
Review:  4 stars (of five)

Zero Dark Thirty is a very well-made, compelling film that will deserve the Oscar nominations surely coming its way.  It feels like a documentary recreation of the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden, and its lengthy recreation of the raid that killed the terrorist leader in May 2011, in particular, is fantastic filmmaking.

The Hurt Locker team of Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have eschewed character drama or broader ruminations on the U.S. war on terror in favor of a procedural. Bigelow’s camera follows Jessica Chastain as one determined CIA officer whose pursuit of the thinnest of leads to eventually track down and executing Osama Bin Laden.

The film is tense despite its focus on the mundane investigative work.  Yes, the film opens with the much-discussed torture scenes, and is punctuated throughout with the violence and physical danger, it still spends a lot of time on internal CIA debates about whether a lead is worth pursuing, whether facts add up–when the viewers all know that the lead is good, will be pursued, and Bin Laden ends up with a bullet in the head.  That the film is so compelling despite there being no tension in terms of outcomes says a lot about both Bigelow’s direction and the first-hand reportage Boal put into the script.

While the film has fascinating operational details, excellent actors and utterly authoritative portrayals of CIA black sites, on-the-ground actions in Pakistan and the Abbottabad raid, it has virtually nothing in terms of character development.  Chastain’s character is based on a real CIA officer, who comes off as the sole reason Bin Laden was ever tracked down, but the filmmakers have said that this story could have been told from other perspectives, too.  We get very little sense of who she is–in fact, her life is presented as fairly explicitly consisting of nothing but the obsessive hunt for Bin Laden. The power of the film’s finale rests in Chastain’s silent realization that with the death of Bin Laden, she herself is adrift–or free.

The film is controversial for several reasons.  It depicts CIA torture in the early days of the “war on terror,” and suggests that ultimately valuable information was drawn from a torture victim.  It also comes out very quickly after the event, and through direct reportage by the filmmakers, arguably before the story of the hunt for, and killing of, Bin Laden has been thoroughly digested.  Facts presented in the film may be disputed (the U.S. Senate is currently up in arms about the torture part), but the filmmakers have taken a near-documentary approach to presenting Boal’s researched story.

That’s not to say the movie is neutral in its politics.  It opens to a black screen as we hear actual 911 calls and other recordings from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and we are reminded of that attack and its death toll more than once.  A senior CIA officer complains that the ban on torture has limited his ability to gather critical intelligence.  The Muslim perspective on American intervention and hegemony, its methodology in the war on terror are never voiced.  Hell, our poster boy for CIA torturers seems like an okay guy who even confesses that repeatedly brutalizing suspected terrorists takes an emotional toll on him.

So while the film presents its case in neutral way, it’s a neutral presentation of the American/CIA perspective.  It does not consider why people become anti-U.S. terrorists.  It does not linger on the many children who saw their parents shot to death during the raid to wonder how many of them will become the next generation of terrorists.  It simply says, “this is what American intelligence and military forces did to find Osama Bin Laden over the course of a dark decade.”  Further value judgements must be left to other journalists or filmmakers–or to the audience.