This is what defeat looks like, bro. Your jihad is over.
It was kind of ballsy to make a major motion picture about a story which had been told to death on basic cable by the time this film was released. The search for Osama bin Laden and the daring Navy SEAL raid that killed the terrorist kingpin were as familiar to Americans as the romantic misadventures of the Kardashians. Most of the events portrayed here have been detailed in Discovery channel documentaries, so what does Zero Dark Thirty have to tell us what we didn’t already know?
The answer is not much, but it doesn’t really matter. There is something about seeing those same events played out more intimately with the foreground populated by first-rate actors that humanizes the story more effectively than a cable documentary with faceless performers “dramatizing” the various events.
Maya (Jessica Chastain) is an inexperienced CIA officer working in Pakistan under a more experienced officer named Dan (Jason Clarke), questioning detainees shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. She’s obviously troubled by Dan’s brutal tactics but also sufficiently committed to the cause of catching bin Laden to put her reservations aside.
Under “enhanced interrogation,” a source turns them on to a man going by the name Abu Ahmed, who might have direct contact with bin Laden. The film then follows the long and laborious efforts to identify and locate Abu Ahmed, but these are unsuccessful and in 2009 a source suggests that Abu Ahmed is dead and they’ve been chasing a dead-end for years.
Because Dan and Maya are composite characters based on individuals whose identities are closely guarded secrets, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, as well as the actors, have a great deal of freedom to create vivid characters to dramatize the story as they see fit. Jessica Chastain disappears into the role of a woman who appears to have no life other than chasing bin Laden, pursuing her quarry with a white-hot intensity.
I wanted to drop a bomb. But people didn't believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb. So they're using you guys as canaries. And, in theory, if bin Laden isn't there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser. But bin Laden is there. And you're going to kill him for me.
This film generated a bit of controversy in its portrayal of enhanced interrogation (aka torture), accused of suggesting that it was more integral to locating bin Laden than it really was. Of course, since the search for bin Laden is still shrouded in secrecy, the exact role of torture in locating him is unknown to the you or me. What I do know is this: if they had not portrayed the “enhanced interrogation” methods in use during this period of our history, someone would accuse the filmmakers of whitewashing the issue. Bigelow and Boal were in a no-win situation.
It would be wrong to suggest that that Zero Dark Thirty is an essential film, since the story had already been told so many times. I would have been more interested in the film they originally wanted to make about the failed search for bin Laden in Tora Bora shortly after we went into Afghanistan, which they abandoned after he was killed in 2011. I think the perspective of history and new knowledge about the man’s movements would have made their original idea even more interesting, rather than render it obsolete.
We are still left with another telling with top-flight performances and production values. It’s comparative redundancy does not take away from its artistic merits.