ZERO DARK THIRTY Provides a Taut, Heavy Military/Spy Drama
Review by John Harvey
ZERO DARK THIRTY is on many levels not your average military/spy drama. Let’s start with the fact that we rarely see movies examining such complex, controversial, and historic events in such a short span of time after the event itself—Osama bin Laden’s death occurred on May 2, 2011. Normally, it takes many years, even decades, before we view history through the lens of filmmaking (at least with anything resembling accuracy). At that point, the specifics (and the key players) have aged enough for us to look at how events unfolded with a kind of clinical detachment. If we see things we don’t like, then it’s easy to say, “Well, that was another time.”
ZERO DARK THIRTY, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, doesn’t provide that luxury. Just a hair over 1 ½ years have passed since the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), more commonly known as Seal Team Six, choppered into Abbottabad, Pakistan, to kill Osama bin Laden. It can be assumed that many of the key players in that top secret operation are still in their jobs and the morally-questionable practices used during the hunt for bin Laden remain … well … morally questionable.
But we’ve apparently entered a time when details of top secret operations get leaked to the major news networks and published in books (written by DEVGRU operators) almost moments after the events themselves have transpired. Like it or not, ZERO DARK THIRTY is likely the start of a trend and not a one-off event.
The movie itself details the journey of a CIA analyst named Maya (Jessica Chastain), a green recruit stationed in Afghanistan who dedicates herself to finding bin Laden with what eventually becomes monomaniacal fervor. The very first scene is Maya shadowing a CIA interrogator named Dan (Jason Clarke … an amazing performance) as he waterboards and humiliates an al Qaeda money handler named Ammar (Reda Kateb). Scenes like this, and others in the film, pull no punches. The torture is brutal, visceral, and hard to watch. Within the narrative of the film, it’s also made clear that while torture didn’t provide US intelligence agencies with the magic key to finding bin Laden, it did provide helpful information.
And here is where you locate the core of the controversy surrounding the film. It’s well known that Mark Boal based his script on first-hand interviews with military and intelligence officials who took part in the search for bin Laden. While the film is still intended to be entertainment and consumed as a work of fiction, it’s a brand of fiction that likely hews close to the truth in areas. Which areas? Well, that’s unknown and that’s why a lot of people are upset.
I have seen news commentaries stating that ZERO DARK THIRTY seeks to capture a “red state” audience by endorsing torture as a means to gather good intelligence. I have seen news commentaries stating ZERO DARK THIRTY seeks to capture a “blue state” audience by portraying torture so graphically that it’s a testimonial against the practice. I have even read a news story stating that Bigelow and Boal cynically steered straight down the middle in a crass effort to capture both liberal hand-wringing moviegoers and fist-pumping conservative moviegoers.
Personally, I think they’re all wrong.
For me, these scenes pose a moral dilemma / question to each audience member. The question boils down to whether or not you, the person sitting in the movie seat, want to be a citizen in a country that tortures … even if it works … especially if it works. One of the smartest yet frustrating aspects of ZERO DARK THIRTY is that it doesn’t try to spoon feed you an answer to that question. You’re on your own to sort it out during your drive home.
Looking past the torture scenes, ZERO DARK THIRTY provides a taut (though longish … 157 minutes) CIA tradecraft procedural that manages to be suspenseful even though you know how the movie ends. Without being boring, the movie makes you feel the tedium and the drag of time as Maya and her peers sift through data, follow leads, bluff, struggle against bureaucracy and politics, lose friends (sometimes tragically), and do it all to the occasional historic exclamation point of a building, bus, or market being bombed and innocent lives being lost. That’s the first two hours of the film. Roughly, the final 30 minutes details the DEVGRU raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Again, we know for the most part what happened there (assuming you watched the news anywhere), but via Bigelow’s direction and Boal’s writing, the climax remains tense, suspenseful, and a little unsettling.
That the movie is solidly constructed is not surprising. Boal and Bigelow were the writing/directing team for THE HURT LOCKER (2008), an amazing Iraq war drama that won the Oscar for Best Director. Even if you don’t like ZERO DARK THIRTY for its controversial elements, you can’t deny that Bigelow and Boal have established themselves as a rock-solid presence in filmmaking and storytelling.
All around, the acting is terrific. Chastain’s Maya gives us an obsessive character with a single-minded focus that borders on a mania, but at the moment where you start to think of her as a robot, she reveals a human side that is convincing and genuine. It’s worth noting that Maya is based on a real person (referred to as “Miss 100%” in the book NO EASY DAY by DEVGRU operative Mark Own (pseudonym)).
Another notable performer is Jennifer Ehle as Jessica, a fellow CIA analyst and Maya’s closest friend during the hunt for bin laden. It is in scenes with Ehle’s Jessica and Clark’s Dan that Maya shows her more human and sympathetic side. Without these two characters, Maya’s character would come off as entirely unlikable and inhuman.
And in a movie that is quite nearly bereft of humor, the scant few scenes that provide a welcome chuckle feature James Gandolfini as Leon Panetta (he’s credited as “CIA Director” … but yeah, it’s Leon Panetta). It’s not goofy fun and the movie’s tone remains intact, but Gandolfini’s subtly-played scenes come at a time when the audience needs someone to open the pressure-release valve on all the heavy serious stuff.
ZERO DARK THIRTY is not your typical military/spy drama. There’s no sentimentality and nobody tries to pound a socio-political message into your head. The final mission is not portrayed with a sense of jingoist triumph so much as stark, detached ambivalence. Bigelow and Boal don’t tell us whether or not torture, American policy, or the war on terror is right or wrong. They leave it to us to walk out of the theater and think critically about bin Laden’s assassination and decide if it was worth it in terms of means and ends.
It’s a very good movie, but you know how when you leave a crowded movie theater everyone is laughing and chatting lightly. Yeah, I didn’t see a lot of that as I exited ZERO DARK THIRTY.
I give it four out of five knives.
Runtime: 2 hours & 37 minutes
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Jennifer Ehle, and Kyle Chandler
(Editor’s Note: while ZERO DARK THIRTY was released in a few cities in late 2012 to be eligible for Oscar Nominations, it was not released to the majority of the country’s theaters until 2013.)
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© Copyright 2013 by John D. Harvey
John Harvey gives ZERO DARK THIRTY~four knives.