Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow, director
Mark Boal, script
Starring: Jessica Chastain (Maya), Jason Clarke (Dan), Joel Edgerton (Patrick), Mark Strong (George), Jennifer Ehle (Jessica), Mark Duplass (Steve), James Gandolfini (Leon Panetta)
This controversial American political thriller about the killing of Osama bin Laden is nominated for five Oscars: best picture, best actress (Jessica Chastain), best script (Mark Boal) and best sound and picture editing. It has provoked controversy because of its subject matter and especially, its unrepentant depiction of scenes of graphic torture by Americans in Afghanistan Pakistan and Guantanamo.
War film, espionage thriller, revenge film
The film follows the complex tale of how Osama bin Laden was killed by US Navy SEALS in 2011 though the observations and actions of one CIA operative, Maya over the previous eight years. In 2003, then a relatively new recruit, Maya is trained in the art of torture by a senior CIA agent, Dan, who humiliates, physically abuses and eventually tricks a suspect, Ammar, into giving up the name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwait, who was working as one of bin Laden’s key couriers. While trying to find Abu Ahmed, the CIA and Pakistani police capture Abu Faraj al-Libbi, who refuses to give more information about Abu Ahmed, even when he is tortured.
While trying to find bin Laden through Abu Ahmed and others, Maya and her CIA friend Jessica survive the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott Hotel. Maya also barely escapes being shot by Muslim terrorists and Jessica is killed in the Camp Chapman suicide bombings. Finally, Maya makes a breakthrough: she surmises that Abu Ahmed is really Ibrahim Sayeed and is able to locate his whereabouts in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. She concludes that bin Laden is there, too, and is able to persuade Dan, now posted at the Pentagon, that she’s right.
After months of indecision, Maya’s theory is finally put to the test. Navy SEALS fly to Abbottabad in stealth helicopters, break into the compound and kill Abu Ahmed and bin Laden. In the end, she identifies bin Laden’s body and then is sent home on a military jet. Maya cries quietly as the plane takes off.
Zero Dark Thirty is set up as a documentary styled thriller so there is no room for showboating in the cast. That said, Jennifer Ehle, Jason Clarke and the ever-reliable James Gandolfini do etch some personality into their roles of, respectively, Jessica, Dan and CIA director Leon Panetta.
There is, of course, one major performer: Jessica Chastain. Maya is a virtual cipher: even to Jessica, she confesses to having no emotional or romantic connection—or inclination—to anyone in the CIA or elsewhere. She is, ostensibly, a woman obsessed with one thing, the death of bin Laden. And yet, she is a compelling figure throughout the film. We see Zero Dark Thirty through Maya’s eyes; she is the one who makes the narrative work. Chastain accomplishes this riveting performance by slowly letting us watch her move from a naïve recruit to a hardened veteran who can compel a group of tough Navy SEALS to kill bin Laden “for her.”
The director and writer
Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal worked on the Oscar winning The Hurt Locker together. Once again, they take a tough subject, the U.S. involvement in the Middle East and craft a hard docu-drama that will persuade audiences of its authenticity worldwide. They do their work with rigour and conviction; the film wouldn’t be nearly as successful if they hadn’t approached it that way. Both will win accolades for their work.
Zero Dark Thirty is a very impressive film and it’s bound to garner great reviews in nearly every media venue. One can’t argue that Bigelow’s and Boal’s film isn’t strong—it is. But, if I may, I’d like to object to three things in the film.
One: this film condones torture. Two: in endorsing the CIA’s account of how bin Laden was killed, Boal and Bigelow allow Muslims, not just terrorists, to be portrayed as the enemy throughout the film. And three: they imply that bin Laden was still in charge of al-Qaeda, which many informed individuals think is not likely to have been the case by 2011.
Now, Boal and Bigelow will claim that they’re not taking sides, simply telling a story. But this is nonsense. They’ve applied their considerable art and craft to making audiences believe the stories that they’ve learned from the CIA. To be clear: Bin Laden is an indefensible figure, who caused the deaths of thousands of civilians and transformed us into a far more fearful and, indeed, paranoid society than before 9/11. Ridding the world of terrorism is a very good thing.
Zero Dark Thirty is an intense and intensely politically film. That should be understood by anyone watching what is surely one of the most important works of the year. And it’s only January!