When I first saw Zero Dark Thirty, I left the theatre thinking I’d been bored to tears for 157 minutes. It was only later, with time to reflect, and being unable to get the movie out of my mind, that I realized my reaction to the film was wrong.
Yes, the film was loooooong, two and a half hours. There were many scenes where people just talked, where nothing seemed to happen. There were so many people in the cast that I felt burned out trying to remember who was who. There were so many locations—one part of the world one minute, another part the next, I felt jetlagged. In the beginning of the film, Jessica Chastain, who plays the key CIA operative, is so beautiful that it was impossible for me to believe she could really be a bookish obsessive.
From the previews I had been lead to believe that Zero Dark Thirty, the story of the hunt for Osama Bid Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, was going to be an action film. A lot of stuff happens in this movie, but you can only describe the last 20 minutes, the actual raid by the American SEAL team on the bin Laden complex in Pakistan, as a conventional “action” film. I found out later, that many other people also expected a different movie and thus were disappointed. I share my mistaken reaction with you in the hopes that you might not be mislead as I was, and enjoy the film for what it is.
After seeing it a second time, I can tell you that Zero Dark Thirty is a superb film, mind-rattlingly provocative, possibly brilliant, sparkling with fine performances throughout, especially Jessica Chastain. It does have explosions, a fantastic car chase, and of course the famous raid, so the film does have action in it, but most of what happens in the film is cerebral–it’s a thriller, a who-dunnit, a detailed story of the long, frustrating search for the most hated man in the free world, lead by a woman who spends almost 10 years of her life obsessively trying to convince the old boy’s network to take action on her convictions.
The movie starts on a black screen. All that can be heard are voices that you eventually interpret as coming from 9/11 phone calls. It’s an elegant, discreet opening. No smoking towers, or falling bodies, no hysterical news reports. Just the basic understated introduction of the unbelievable terror that the nation underwent on September 11, 2001. If you didn’t live through 9/11 as an adult , you might not be able to relate to the horror of it. And thus, I am supposing, those who are younger in the audience, might not be sufficiently emotionally invested in the story, combined with its nature as a thriller and not an action film, to enjoy it as much as they should. Bottom-line: accept the film for what it is, and not what the previews imply.
Right out of high school, Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she is called in the film, joins the CIA as a research operative. She is determined 1,000%, to help catch Osama bin Laden. Early on, she witnesses “enhanced interrogation” techniques and has no qualms about being in the room to see what happens rather than watching coyly through a monitor. “Help me,” Ammar (Reda Kateb), the man being tortured, cries to her, no doubt thinking that a woman will be sympathetic to his suffering. “You can help yourself by being truthful,” she replies.
This is no shrinking violet, this gal. She will do whatever it takes to find the information she needs to catch bin Laden. She becomes convinced that it is through bin Laden’s courier system that he will be found. It takes her nearly a decade to get confirmation, from many different sources, and to convince her superiors she is correct.
When she finally pinpoints where she thinks bin Laden is hiding out–in a complex in Abbottabad, not far from Pakistan’s West Poin– it still takes another year to get the leaden government sources to authorize action. The raid is planned for sometime between midnight and dawn, the “zero dark thirty” of the title. The US SEAL team, in a thrilling, excruciatingly realistic sequence, seen through their green night-vision goggles, finally happens—and is successful, it is Maya who offers the final approval.
Yes, the body on the gurney is Osama bin Laden. We don’t see his face. The ending is just as purposefully discreet as the opening. Maya pulls up the sheet, peers at the face for a few seconds, and declares that the corpse is Osama bin Laden. Then she rides back to the U.S., the solitary passenger in a cargo plane. No applause, no public appreciation. We don’t even see President Barack Obama make the proud announcement. It’s just a job finished by one of the thousands of faceless people involved in the war on terror.
One reason the movie is so long is that it tells a story that took a long time to happen. It’s almost impossible to believe that it took almost ten years to find bin Laden. Was the countryside between Afghanistan and Pakistan really so rugged that he could have camped out in caves for nearly a decade? Is it really possible that he had no help from Pakistani officials when later it was discovered he was hiding right under their noses?
These and more questions dominate the movie. Most significantly now, with all the press coverage about it, is the main question the movie seems to ask—was torture responsible for getting the information that led to bin Laden? Lots of people, including CIA higher-ups, are saying that torture didn’t play a role. Yeah, sure. Like trained interrogators aren’t going to take out their frustration on suspected Al Quaeda members after their leader murdered 3,000 U.S. citizens?
Although torture is the theme du jour now, it’s not the main theme of the film. Zero Dark Thirty, though it concentrates on the obsession of one female operative, points out how many people, in the military and intelligence, played a role, sometimes fleeting but always significant, in finding bin Laden. These unknown people are just as much heroes as the SEAL team. The raid was accomplished without any loss of U.S. life, but as the film points out, civilians lost their lives on this search. This was sadly pointed out when Maya’s friend Jessica (the marvelous Jennifer Ehle) was killed in the Mideast while waiting for a hoped for informant to arrive at a military base1/7/2013. Later, Maya herself is almost killed when she gets too close to information about bin Laden’s courier web.
Director Kathryn Bigelow, who thrilled war-weary audiences with 2008’s Hurt Locker and won an Oscar for her efforts, has brought the same intensity and passion to Zero Dark Thirty. People are amazed that a woman, and a hot one at that, can direct testosterone-rich movies—get over it, folks—a woman can direct any kind of movie she wants to, and obviously she can do it just as well as a man. It was men who raided the bin Laden complex and men who gave the orders, but it was a woman who used her brain to get them there.