Zero Dark Thirty is not an easy movie. Zero Dark Thirty is not a fun movie. Let me be clear before I get too deep into this: You will not come out of this movie having enjoyed it. You won’t come out recommending it to people for the thrilling chase scenes, the shootouts or the on-screen fire. Zero Dark Thirty is not your average, generic, paint-by-numbers spy thriller. If you want the more conventional but quality spy stuff, I’d recommend either Skyfall or Argo. So don’t go see Zero Dark Thirty movie if you’re after the kind of excitement you normally get from Hollywood.
In many ways, the advertising has lied to you about this movie. This isn’t the tale of Seal Team Six’s Operation Neptune Spear, although that is the last 30 minutes or so. This isn’t even the tale of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden. This is the hunt for bin Laden’s courier. More importantly, this is movie is the tale of “Maya”, a CIA officer who joins the chase for the world’s most wanted man in 2003. Through interrogation and torture, Maya learns of the existence of “Abu Ahmed”, a courier who ferries messages between bin Laden and one of his top lieutenants in Pakistan. The lead comes and goes through the years. Terror attacks continue around the world. The pressure keeps building and building on the intelligence community to end them. And Maya always keeps that hunt for Abu Ahmed burning, even when she’s told that he’s dead. The movie goes from the back streets of Peshawar to the night clubs of Kuwait and the corridors of power in Washington DC to even Area 51. In the end, through persistence, desperation, and luck, Maya is able to find Abu Ahmed, who unwittingly leads her network of agents to a three-story compound in the city of Abbottabad, Pakistan. A compound that she eventually determines is the hiding place of the most wanted man in the world.
It’d be nice to say that this movie is all about shadow and intrigue, as traditional spy movies tend to be. But it is not. This is a movie about briefings and meetings. It’s a movie about trying to convince Section Chiefs and higher-level bosses that the conclusions you have reached are sound and real – even when the evidence gives no conclusion and the political risks are large. This is a movie about people working in tiny offices, in front of monitors, translating interrogations and interviews. Intercut with that, we get the interrogation of detainees, the car bombs and terror attacks, the threats and, finally, the mission. But those moments are few and far between. This is a movie about office workers – but office workers with black sites, drones and SEALs.
At the heart is Jessica Chastain’s portrayal of “Maya”. I put her name in quotes since we are never told if that is really her name or not. In fact, most of the names and characters are likely pseudonyms to protect the various CIA officers and agents who were involved. Chastain’s Maya starts her journey as someone who is intelligent and capable, but cringes at how Dan (Jason Clarke), a senior CIA officer interrogates and tortures a captured money-courier with ties to a Saudi group of terrorists. By 45 minutes into the film – or two years later into her journey – Maya has developed the willingness to incite the beating and torture of a captured senior Al-Qaeda terrorist, using the same words that Dan uses at the start. Chastain manages to comfortably portray the frustration, desperation and loneliness of Maya. She cuts a solitary figure who is driven by her quest to see her tiny lead through to its end, even when everyone else around her doubts and disagrees with her.
Surrounding Maya is a rather strong cast of actors that include Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Harold Perrineau, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Edgar Ramirez, Stephen Dillane, Joel Edgerton and James Gandolfini. Each one of them brings a strong presence, even when it’s brief. That’s part of the point: while these characters share in Maya’s story – some in rather profound and vital ways – none of them are involved in every step of the way. In a dark, twisted way, Maya is her own cell, working on taking out bin Laden by herself while chasing her own little lead. Of note are Clark as Dan and Ehle as Jessica, who are there at the start of Maya’s quest. Also, I should point out Reda Kateb, the actor who portrays Ammar, the tortured terrorist at the start of the movie, as well as Fares Fares, who plays Hakim, the special forces interpreter/infiltrator for the CIA in both the manhunt for Abu Ahmed as well as during the Seal Team’s operation. Both are able to portray parts of the many faces of the Muslim world during this hunt.
Originally director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal were set to follow their Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker with the tale of the 2001 failed Tora Bora campaign when Operation Neptune Spear happened and changed the dynamic of the story they wanted to tell. In effect, they had to start from scratch. They should be commended for being able to craft such a strong movie in such short time. Bigelow brings a strong cast of actors as well as a terrific crew to help her put together this movie. From composer Alexandre Desplat (Harry Potter & The Deathly Hallows) to cinematographer Greig Fraser (Let Me In) to editors Dylan Tichenor (There Will Be Blood, Brokeback Mountain) & William Goldenberg (Argo, Heat), there is a lot of talent both in front and behind the camera to put all these pieces together.
But just as the story is centered on Maya, the movie is centered around Bigelow and her talents. She has had a strong resurgence with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty should add another feather to her cap. The movie is taut and tense, but it never feels cheap. When Maya is crying over the loss of a friend, it doesn’t feel like a movie begging you to feel her pain. At no point does the movie pander to the audience. She starts the film on a “September 11, 2001” title card and allows audio from 911 calls to play over the black screen – Bigelow is confident that the images of that day are ingrained into our collective conscience sufficiently that we don’t need to see them again. Even the death of bin Laden is treated as part of a military operation, with only a casual remark from one SEAL team member to the team member who shot him down.
The movie has obviously come under fire for its depiction of torture aka “interrogation techniques”, most notably, waterboarding. But the movie neither implies it is the only technique used nor does it state that it works. In fact, Ammar doesn’t cooperate because he’s broken by the waterboarding or being shoved in a small box. He does when he’s conned by Maya into thinking a terrorist operation he knew about failed when it, in fact, succeeded. Does that mean that the movie condemns torture? No. The movie doesn’t present the greater ethical questions surrounding the CIA’s techniques. It merely shows them as part of their arsenal of techniques. The only time the ethical issues surrounding torture are even mentioned is when Dan tells Maya that she ought to make sure she’s not the last person “holding the leash of a detainee.”
This is part of the movie’s greater point regarding Maya and her CIA brethren: these are people who are living in their own bubble. They have no friends outside of other intelligence agents. They rarely socialize and almost never go out. Much like attorneys or surgeons or other high-pressure/high-stakes careers, the men and women who chase terrorists and their allies live in a world that is both parallel to the greater one but aside from it. When Senator Obama mentions on CNN that the US does not torture, it stops them in their tracks, but they don’t react with fear or apprehension. They stare at the screen, take it what’s said, and then go back to their work. It’s like they’re aware of the political pressures on the outside, but regard it as something that won’t affect them till much later. In fact, it does affect them later, when the Iraqi WMD failures and the torture scandal of Abu Ghraib are shown to have, in effect, neutered much of their impetus for Operation Neptune Spear – the chiefs and higher ups being only 60% certain of bin Laden’s presence while Maya is 100% certain he is in Abbottabad.
Perhaps it is this cold detachment by Maya and Dan and the rest that keeps the movie at arm’s length from the audience and prevents it from engaging it. There have been many complaints – some from friends I saw the movie with – of the length of the movie and how little they cared for the characters. Now obviously some of that is born from the frustration of what the movie is versus what is being marketed. But, at the same time, Bigelow has created a cold movie. Bigelow doesn’t seem to want you to sympathize with the CIA agents. She doesn’t want you to feel for the tortured terrorists. Even the SEALS (the “Canaries”) are nothing more than bearded, fit fighting men who wait for the signal to go and then execute their mission with cold, ruthless professionalism. We don’t get to know them beyond their aspect as the men who go into the compound to take out bin Laden.
This detachment allows Bigelow and Boal to tell the story they want without creating traditional “heroes” and “villains.” It’s quality storytelling but it’s not necessarily enjoyable storytelling, which raises a greater question: should a movie depicting torture, terrorism and the nearly-decade long manhunt for bin Laden be enjoyable? This isn’t Inglorious Basterds, where the filmmaker can change history to rouse the audience. This isn’t a Cold War-era spy thriller or one of Tom Clancy’s techno-thrillers, where the hero comes face-to-face with the villain moments before riddling him with bullet holes. And we are not decades away from the damage that the 9/11 terrorist attacks as well as the War on Terror have wrought. We’re still living with it. So, to say that the movie – as a movie – should be enjoyable confuses me. Did people find Schindler’s List or Munich enjoyable?
I do hope that Bigelow and Boal do make one more “War on Terror”-themed movie. If The Hurt Locker covered the day-to-day, everyday life of the men and women involved in the wars and Zero Dark Thirty brought to life the greater, complex issues that surrounded it, I feel like they need to make one more movie that touches on the aftermath and touches on those ethical questions that this movie sought to avoid. Touch on torture and extended imprisonment. Look at rendition programs, black CIA sites and the political fallout of them. The first movie dealt with the men. The second movie deals with the manhunt. The third movie should touch on the nation, on how we have changed and what this has cost us – beyond the oft-repeated line of “three thousand Americans” that so many in the movie spout.
Zero Dark Thirty therefore stands as a great, but difficult film. You can recognize the technical brilliance and the quality of the performances while also acknowledging that it is not the kind of movie you will see more than once or twice. You can appreciate the passion of the filmmakers even while noticing that the movie is dispassionate. And you can acknowledge the complexities of the issues that the movie is seeking to bring to the foreground while also accepting that the movie neither lionizes nor demonizes the men and women who were involved in the events. As such, I think people will appreciate it but not love it. That doesn’t diminish its qualities. It just means Bigelow and Boal achieve the goal they set out to do: tell the tale of the greatest manhunt in history as accurately as possible. There is both success and sacrifice, triumph and loss. But what has been won and what has been lost is left to the audience to ask and answer. It’ll be a long time before we have those answers though.