After both scoring Oscars for their heart-pounding portrayal of an Iraq War bomb disposal unit in 2009’s The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal turn their lens on another, more shadowy side of the American War on Terror with Zero Dark Thirty, a film that chronicles the decade-long search for terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden. Like the manhunt it painstakingly recreates, the film is a dense and complicated affair, full of ethical uncertainty and frustrating narrative dead-ends. Yet for the attentive viewer, Bigelow’s latest proves a rewarding piece of filmmaking, one that, in its best moments at least, is as gripping and as troubling as anything the director’s ever made.
In 2003, at a CIA black site in an undisclosed Middle Eastern location, an agency interrogator (Jason Clarke; Lawless) water-boards a prisoner with connections to a Saudi terrorist group. It’s a frank, ugly sequence that introduces us to post-9/11 espionage tactics, and also to Maya (Jessica Chastain; The Help), a newly minted CIA officer “fresh off the plane from Washington”, sent to assist in the mission to locate and capture the world’s most dangerous man. As the scene unfolds, her discomfort is obvious. But when the detainee, naked and bloodied, begs her for her help, she replies only that “you can help yourself by being truthful.”
This uncomfortable contrast between brutality and detachment lies at the heart of Zero Dark Thirty. For the next eight year, Maya will pour every ounce of her being into the search for Bin Laden. The leads she’ll chase will be thin, and many of them will go nowhere. Still others will put her life – and the lives of her colleagues, played by the likes of Kyle Chandler (Super 8), Mark Strong (John Carter), Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) and Edgar Ramirez (Carlos) – in grave danger. Chastain plays the part extraordinarily close to the chest; soon, the once green Maya is hard and unwavering; haunted by her failures, driven on by the slim chance of success. As a viewer, you may sometimes find yourself wishing that you knew more about her. But that’s not the reality of the world in which she lives.
Indeed, realism – or at least, the appearance of realism – is Zero Dark Thirty’s paramount concern. Unnecessary title cards notwithstanding, Boal’s script refuses to spell things out or gloss things up, with characters frequently referencing people, places, events and practices of which the audience has little or no prior knowledge. Such an uncompromised approach is simultaneously admirable, effective and infuriating. The film is extraordinarily successful in capturing the feelings of futility and uncertainty that no doubt plagued the real life investigation. Whether such authenticity is worth the sacrifices made to pacing and clarity depends on the scene and the attention span of the viewer.
Aesthetically, Bigelow uses the same minimalist docudrama technique that she employed so effectively in The Hurt Locker. Handheld camerawork contributes to that vital sense of realism; be it a crowded marketplace in Pakistan or the sterile-white corridors of CIA headquarters, Bigelow makes you feel like you’re actually there yourself. Forget 3D; this is immersive filmmaking, achieved not with overblown style or technical gimmickry, but through careful shot slection, immaculate editing and the inherent danger of the scenarios found in the script. The prolific Alexandre Desplat (Argo, Rise of the Guardians) contributes the film’s similarly understated score; repetitious mechanical rumblings calling to mind the whirring of helicopter rotors, ominously foreshadowing the story’s inevitable end.
And what an end it is. After finally tracking a man they believe to be bin Laden to a three story compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Maya and her superiors wrangle clearance for an incursion. Depicted in real time (or close to it), the final thirty minutes of the film are a meticulous recreation of the May 2011 raid, and will be remembered, deservedly so, as some of the most knuckle-whitening work that Bigelow has ever produced. Foreknowledge of the mission’s outcome makes the sequence no less compelling. At the same time, we’re crucially aware of that unnerving dispassion that has pervaded the film from frame one. The SEALs, who in earlier scenes were jocular and full of bravado, execute their task with unflinching proficiency; clinical killers against whom their unsuspecting targets never stood a chance.
That Bigelow and Boal never explicitly address the legality – or morality – of this, or any of the other practices they depict, makes the movie that much more challenging. Since its release, many have accused Zero Dark Thirty of being pro-torture, or at the very least, implying that such techniques played a part in locating bin Laden. Such accusations are absurd. The film simply shows that torture took place; that it does not explicitly denounce it, or says beyond a shadow of a doubt that torture did not play a part, is a very different thing from saying that it did, or that such practices are effective or acceptable. That the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to include a scene in which a character expresses outrage at such brutal, morally repulsive tactics simply shows that they respect their audience’s ability to reach that conclusion themselves.
The truth is, like The Hurt Locker before it, Zero Dark Thirty is doggedly apolitical, neither condemning nor condoning. While it is no way a simple film, its focus is extraordinarily narrow. If something is lost in this approach, it is context. Just as you may wish you knew more about what motivated Maya, there is never a whole lot of exploration as to how relevant a target bin Laden really is. There is a great film that could be made about this question, just are there are many great films that could be made that about the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program” – a chilling misnomer if ever there was one. Ultimately however, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t want to be those films. As it stands, it’s pretty great how it is.