Zero Dark Thirty Movie Review: Under Cover Of Darkness
Many of us vividly remember what we were thinking and feeling when we first heard of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. The opening minute of Zero Dark Thirty takes the audience back to the tragic events that brought to light the hidden evil of al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization that claimed responsibility for the attacks, and its founder, Osama Bin laden. Against a pitch black screen, an audio montage captures emergency distress phone calls from 9/11; hitting a raw nerve that is still sensitive to many Americans. Similar to the visual motif of redaction used in an early movie trailer, the darkness soon gives way to a bright light.
Based on first hand accounts of actual events, Zero Dark Thirty uncovers the harrowing ten-year manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. The central character is an intelligence analyst named Maya, a woman recruited out of high-school by the CIA years earlier. We are introduced to Maya minutes before she is about to participate in her first prisoner interrogation at a CIA black site. When her assistance is requested, she does not hesitate to fill the jug to be used in water-boarding nor is she at ease with the captive’s anguish.
Maya is played by Jessica Chastain, who is a top contender for the Academy Award for best actress. Her performance does not rely on any profound monologues but on a compelling, layered portrayal of an uncompromising woman obsessed with a singular purpose.
Chastain’s uses her acute awareness of every facial expression and vocal intonation to humanize and add authenticity to a defiant, hard-nosed CIA analyst who tells the US Secretary of Defense, “I’m the motherf*cker who found this place [Bin Laden’s hideout].”
Maya is not a young woman you would care to have a dinner conversation with but she does have a no bullshit attitude needed to hunt down the elusive Bin Laden in a country she offhandedly describes as “kinda all f*cked up”. Over the course of the decade long manhunt, Maya transforms into a post 9/11 Captain Ahab of sorts. According to the movie’s director, Maya is a fictional character partly based on a CIA operative that led the US Navy Seal team that killed Bin Laden.
Zero Dark Thirty is directed by Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow and written by Marc Boal, the same team behind 2008’s The Hurt Locker. There has been controversy that the duo received “top-level access to the most classified information in history” as well as over the film’s graphic use of torture from sexual humiliation, waterboarding, confinement in a tiny box to bloodied beatings.
Several inaccuracies in the portrayal of enhanced interrogation techniques have been cited by a CIA veteran (read here for details) and concerns have been raised that the movie promotes the use of torture. Bigelow has responded to these criticisms stating that depiction of torture is not an endorsement and reiterated Boal’s comment that the movie is “not a documentary”.
Screenwriter Marc Boal does a commendable job of condensing 10 years of intelligence gathering into a 2 ½ hour thriller. Though the first half of the movie does stretch a bit too long, the momentum immediately picks up once Maya locates the courier who leads the CIA to a compound in Pakistan.
It’s fascinating how the CIA exhausted all possibilities in their attempt to determine the identity of an unknown third adult male living in the compound. The CIA considered obtaining DNA, such as from a toothbrush, but all the garbage was burnt. When their target stepped outside for fresh air, he was always hidden under the cover of thick leaves in the garden. They even started a vaccination program and sent a doctor to the house to get blood samples.
Without a photo ID or ground intel, the certainty of Bin Laden residing in the compound is in question for everyone except for Maya. She tells the US Navy Seals, “I wanted to drop a bomb. But people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb. So they are using you guys as canaries … but Bin Laden is there and you’re going to kill him for me.”
It’s interesting to note that this movie was in development for many years and that the ending was rewritten due to the successful mission last May that killed the al Qaeda leader. The last half hour of the movie, as the US Navy Seals assaulted the hideout in the dead of night, is an incredibly riveting and suspenseful movie experience even when we know how it ends. It’s hard to imagine how else the movie could have concluded.
The death of Bin Laden brings a certain sense of closure to Americans as well as for Maya having spent a decade of her life hunting the world’s most wanted terrorist. In the final scene, she boards an empty military plane and the pilot asks the lone passenger “Where do you want to go?”. She takes a moment for reflection. As she is overcome with emotions and thoughts, tears start to run down her cheeks. So where do we go from here?