Occasionally, a film like Zero Dark Thirty is made, one that confronts the challenges of our current political climate directly by telling the story of how a single CIA agent spearheaded the hunt for Osama bin Laden over the course of eight years. Of course, considering the reaction the film has seen in popular media, it isn’t hard to see why many filmmakers choose to avoid such controversial topics. Whenever Zero Dark Thirty comes up in the press, it is in one of two contexts. Either people are discussing the accusations made against director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal that their film advocates torture, or perhaps leaks confidential information; or they are commenting on how critics have championed the film.
It has appeared at the top of numerous critics’ top 10 films of the year, and it has generated a moderate degree of Oscar buzz. So, which media narrative of the film is correct? Is it a morally dubious exploitation of our recent history, or an artistic tour de force by one of the most talented filmmakers working today? Perhaps my own position makes me a little biased, but I’m going to have to side with the film critics over political pundits, at least on the issue of a film’s quality. Zero Dark Thirty is a stunning film, one that challenges its audience to consider the way wars are fought in the modern era. Bigelow and Boal previously collaborated on the 2009 movie The Hurt Locker, an exploration ofhow warfare effects the minds of our soldiers.
Just as The Hurt Locker provided a star-making role for Jeremy Renner, Zero Dark Thirty is a showcase for Jessica Chastain, who plays the protagonist, Maya. Chastain burst on to the scene recently, having appeared in eleven films since 2011, but her role here is her meatiest yet. The film creates a role for its heroine that works against the cliches female protagonists tend to suffer in today’s movies. Maya is deliberately never sexualized, and she is also shown to be extremely competent at her job. In fact, her singular focus on finding bin Laden provides the film with its sense of structure.
The events depicted take place over a long period of time, but Maya’s determination is a constant in every scene, and Chastain deftly keeps that single-mindedness from becoming too absurd. The remaining cast is strong as well, but none of the other characters stay on screen for too long. Actors like James Gandolfini, Jennifer Ehle and Kyle Chandler pop up for a few scenes, and then retreat into the background as the narrative returns its focus to Maya.
As the story is so centered on a single intelligence officer, most of the drama revolves around the realities of intelligence gathering. Despite what some of the advertising has implied, this is not an action movie. Most of the drama involves Maya simply waiting for something to happen, so it is a credit to Bigelow’s direction that the film is not interminably boring. She establishes a contrast between the potentially tedious work these officers do, and the disturbingly violent terrorist attacks they are attempting to prevent. She also creates another interesting contrast, between the intelligence work and the torture scenes that sparked the film’s controversy in the first place.
Bigelow begins the movie with one of these “interrogation” scenes, and it is a harsh, unblinking depiction of the actions some thought were necessary to protect our country. At first, the audience identifies with Maya’s reaction to the torture, as she is horrified at what she sees. Over time, however, she becomes more comfortable with the debasement of prisoners, eventually becoming skilled in running the torture herself, and as she grows, the audience grows with her
Some have argued that this implies an endorsement of torture, but that is too simple a view of a film that attempts to take a more nuanced perspective. The film never makes any overt judgments about the morality of these actions, good or bad. American officers did participate in these acts of torture, and they acted on information learned during these sessions, but Bigelow points out the unreliability of that information.
Notably, Maya doesn’t even get close to bin Laden until long after the torture has ceased. Ultimately, the sheer horror of the torture scenes as depicted should be enough to prove that this film does not suggest torture is a good thing. In the film’s final act, once bin Laden has been found, Bigelow shifts the storytelling style drastically. The final thirty minutes play out as a remarkably tense depiction of the raid on the house in which bin Laden was hiding out.
In some ways it is a throwback to Bigelow’s style on her early films, such as Point Break, but it doesn’t feel out of place here, primarily because it is so effective. Yes, the audience knows what the end result of the raid will be, but the tension persists, because the film has changed the question from “Will we kill Osama?” to “What does it mean when we do?”