No major studio movie in the history of the cinema has generated the kind of political fire that has greeted Kathryn Bigelow’s new film Zero Dark Thirty. There are two main reasons for this. Political films often lose money, so they’re not made often. It’s been that way for decades; in 1944, during the height of WWII patriotism, Daryl F. Zanuck made Wilson, a biography of the 28th president. It didn’t make back half of its cost. For every Charlie Wilson’s War, there’s a Primary Colors. But the second reason is the main one: it takes so long for a movie to be made that it’s hard for them to be topical. They usually come out years after the events they portray. With Zero Dark Thirty, the filmmakers were already working on a film about the search for Osama bin Laden when the al Qaeda leader was found and killed. That allowed them to bring out the movie a little over a year after the event.
Or, they would have, except for howling from certain members of Congress who promised investigations into the CIA leaking secrets to the filmmakers. Mostly they saw the film as a political statement to help with the re-election of President Obama. After the release date was changed to December, the howling ended. It came back when politicians learned that “enhanced interrogation techniques” – torture – is portrayed early in the film. Now the CIA was accused of misleading the filmmakers. What the controversy accomplished was to make people want to see the film. It did well in limited release, and when it went into wide release last weekend it easily topped the box office. This weekend, with its main competition being the new Ahr-nold film, The Last Stand, it will likely stay on top. Thanks to all the kerfuffle in Washington, the movie is turning a profit. The good news is that it is a fine film that transcends politics.
The movie starts with a black screen. Rather than once again showing images of 9/11, Bigelow chooses to play 911 calls from inside the Twin Towers, focusing on an emergency operator talking with a woman on one of the burning floors. The operator is professional until she loses contact with the woman, and then the training falls away and you hear the operator’s personal, emotional response to what’s happening. It’s more disturbing than any visual would be.
Fast forward two years. CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) has been assigned to work with Dan (Jason Clarke) at a black site where terrorists are held in Pakistan. Dan freely uses waterboarding and similar methods to interrogate prisoners, but it garners little information.
After a couple of years Maya suggests a change of course. They simply tell the man they’re interrogating that he broke, even though he doesn’t remember it, and start feeding him well while talking with him like a real person. Faced with this change, the man offers up good intelligence, including the name of a man used by bin Laden for delivering messages. Dan returns to CIA headquarters, personally burned out by the corrosive effects of the torture methods he’s used. Maya focuses on the courier, while others in the station, including her friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), pursue other routes to find bin Laden. They’re operating in a nation that is on one level a US ally, while on another level is opposed to US efforts. This is seen when the ICI, the Pakistani intelligence agency, burns the US head of station Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler).
The courier becomes an obsession for Maya, who keeps searching for him over the years. During this time, al Qaeda remains active. Maya narrowly escapes the bombing of a hotel in Pakistan, while other attacks such as the London bus bombings are shown. Finally after years, Maya locates the courier. Through methods both high-tech (scanning cell phone calls) and low-tech (a network of observers on the ground), the courier leads to a walled complex in Abbottabad. But is bin Laden actually there?
Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have crafted a movie that plays with a documentary’s exactitude and the intensity of a spy thriller. They were responsible for 2010’s intense look at the Iraq war, The Hurt Locker. As with that previous movie, Zero Dark Thirty focuses on the boots on the ground – the lower level operatives who put themselves at risk as they search for bin Laden and, for the last 30 minutes of the film, the SEAL team that assaults the Islamabad complex. Breathe deeply before that scene begins, because you’ll forget to breathe during it.
Chastain’s Maya is the central glue that holds the film together. She’s a modern-day Ahab, maniacally focused on capturing or killing bin Laden, and Chastain embodies it with an unvarnished power. There’s a telling scene late in the movie when the CIA Director (James Gandolfini) sits down with Maya in the Headquarters cafeteria. He asks her about when she was recruited back in the late 1990’s and what she’s done at the Agency besides look for bin Laden. She replies that this is all she’s done for a decade of her life. There have been news reports that the woman Maya’s character is based on has had a hard time after the takedown of bin Laden. The film makes it totally understandable.
Bigelow has assembled a fine cast of actors. Besides those named, there’s Joel Edgerton (AMC’s The Killing) as the leader of the assault team, John Barrowman (Dr. Who’s Captain Jack Harkness) as a higher-up in the CIA, Chris Pratt as a SEAL, and Mark Strong (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) as Maya’s supervisor. Each perform their roles with equal parts reality and intensity.
Mention needs to be made of the incredible work by first-time production designer Jeremy Hindle along with veteran supervising art director Rod McLean (Hugo, Munich). Hindle created an exact replica of the bin Laden complex in the Jordanian desert, but it makes you feel it was filmed on the actual location. Throughout the movie, the detailed images are incredible. The filmmakers used an area of India near the Pakistan border for some of the shooting, but they also had the second unit shoot footage inside Pakistan itself.
This movie is far from a political statement. Some politicians are saying the film glorifies torture, but I have to wonder if they’ve actually watched the movie. It’s also not a hagiography to President Obama. He’s shown only for a few seconds in an interview clip from the 2008 campaign that’s playing on a TV during a scene. What Zero Dark Thirty does celebrate is the personal courage and sacrifice of individuals to protect this country. Politicians bluster, but the film looks at the people who actually stand at the gate, risking their lives, protecting us and bringing those who have harmed this country to justice. These shadow warriors deserve the honor that this wonderful film gives them.