Intense. From the opening scene (a blank screen where we listen to real calls for help during 9/11) to the last shot (of Jessica Chastain’s CIA analyst Maya letting emotion overwhelm her for the very first time), Zero Dark Thirty had me on the edge of my seat. The action scenes—from a tense moment at Camp Chapman where analysts wait for an Al-Qaeda mole to arrive for a high-level sitdown to the heart-stopping hunt for a Bin Laden’s courier on a crowded street in Pakistan to the seemingly real-time Navy SEAL takedown of Bin Laden’s walled fortress—feel like you’re watching from the inside as a participant. The quieter scenes are adrenaline-filled too: will the Saudi prince take the bribe and provide a vital phone number? Are the detainees on the tape talking about the same man? At other times, you’re tensed for violence as terrorism acts arrive abruptly and without warning—making you, as a moviegoer, feel the suddenness and bone-chilling shock of such attacks. This isn’t a movie for the light-hearted or those looking for a “pleasant night at the movies.” And then there are the torture scenes…
Provocative. The torture scenes (as well as where Bigelow and her writing partner Mark Boal got their information) are the primary area of controversy swirling around the film. Presented matter-of-factly, the scenes play without embellishment. We see a detainee being waterboarded, deprived of sleep, hung from chains, shoved into a box. We see Maya’s reaction (which mirrors our own) and then, at a pivotal moment, her true feelings about the place of torture in the CIA playbook. The film has been heavily criticized for being “pro-torture.” I don’t think it is … it is presented as something that the CIA did and therefore must be addressed. It does make you think though. Would those detainees have given up information with standard (instead of “enhanced”) interrogation techniques? In the war on terror, can you really “play by the rules” and expect to get results? Would “tradecraft” have been enough? I don’t think the film provides answers to any of these questions, but it asks them and, therefore, asks the viewer to come to their own conclusions. It is a muddled and gray area, to be sure. For all the outrage and disgust we felt at the photos of Abu Ghraib, Zero Dark Thirty shows you the before, during and aftermath of the torture and lets you come to your own conclusions about its appropriateness or use.
In addition, the film’s look at a contemporary event (which is still relatively fresh and unexplored by historians with a long view) forces us, as viewers, to decide what we feel about the verity and truth of the material presented by the filmmakers. How much is accurate? How true to life is the information? The film is based on first-hand accounts of these events, but, as we know, we all bring our own biases, misremembrances and prejudices to our experiences, especially one as sensitive as the hunt for Bin Laden. I would say that the film doesn’t feel overtly political but it can’t help but be a reflection of some of the murkier areas of the United States government and its operations.
Well-Crafted. The film covers a span of 10 years and a very convoluted and difficult operation. There was no “point A to point B” type of detective work that led to the execution of Bin Laden. It was messy, confusing, slow and uncertain. Yet, with Bigelow’s clear-eyed direction, we’re able to follow the story from beginning to end. This is saying something as I’m not always the best at figuring out complex movies on my own (just ask Mr. Jenners). However, I was able to follow along without confusion (even with the oftentimes confusing and similar Arabic names). Given the messiness of the situation and the amount of time between the actual events and the release of the film, it is absolutely stunning how precise and well-made this film is. It’s like they cut through all the BS and went to the core of the story and brought it to life for us to see. It really is a stunning piece of filmmaking at every level.
Finally, a note on the acting: Jessica Chastain is riveting as Maya. She brings a steely intelligence and intensity to the role that I didn’t know she had in her. I was really impressed. Another standout for me was Jason Clarke as Dan, a CIA analyst who conducts much of the torture but still makes you feel like this is a guy doing his f-ed up job for the right reasons.
If you want to see a piece of unflinching filmmaking that has something important to say about a contemporary history, then make the time to see Zero Dark Thirty. It isn’t pretty. It isn’t easy. It isn’t fun. Nor should it be. What it might be is the best movie I’ve seen all year.