Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s thriller concerning the hunt for Osama bin Laden, will arrive in theaters subsequent week already toting a hefty burden of ideological and emotional baggage. Political commentators—lots of whom haven’t but seen the film—have criticized the movie for its illustration of torture, which, they argue, is proven to have performed a bigger function within the bin Laden manhunt than it the truth is did. (I’ll get to the query of the film’s therapy of torture additional on; Slate’s Emily Bazelon engages it at size right here.) Movie critics, in flip, have risen up in passionate protection of Zero Dark Thirty, lavishing it with critics’ group awards and putting it on the high of year-end lists.
However even earlier than the flurry of press protection previous the movie’s launch, Zero Darkish Thirty felt vital, a film that, find it irresistible or not, was going to matter to American audiences. Kathryn Bigelow has turn out to be a type of feminist folks hero since her greatest director/greatest image Oscar win for The Damage Locker in 2008, and her muscular directorial type appeared ideally suited to this inherently thrilling material. Who didn’t spend the times after the raid in Abbottabad in Might of 2011 desirous to know each element of what went on in that pitch-dark compound? President Obama’s out-of-the-blue primetime press convention to announce the success—certainly the very existence—of the mission to kill bin Laden was a type of uncommon moments when delusion appears to intersect with the banal unfolding of on a regular basis life. In a post-9/11 world of unwinnable wars and fraudulent “Mission Completed” banners, right here was an incontrovertible and somber fact: The enemy—solely one in every of many, however a singularly vital and symbolic one—had been vanquished.
The final half-hour or so of Zero Dark Thirty re-creates the occasions of that night time on the compound with heart-stopping effectivity and, if the reporting of journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal is to be taken at its phrase, accuracy. In its closing stretch, Zero Dark Thirty resembles The Damage Locker: a taut, hyper-realistic motion thriller a couple of group of males exercising excessive ability in an impossibly irritating scenario. However our data that the elusive, barely glimpsed man on the highest flooring of the compound (and, ultimately, within the physique bag) is the mastermind of 9/11 offers this bravura sequence an particularly highly effective emotional hook. Even when each element in it’s factually true, the movie’s re-creation of the Abbottabad raid capabilities for the viewers as a collective revenge fantasy.
Aside from this final sequence (which may simply be excised from the film and proven as a freestanding re-enactment of the raid), Zero Darkish Thirty is neither revenge fantasy nor motion thriller. It’s a bureaucratic procedural, albeit an unusually tense and incident-filled one. The film opens with a punch-to-the-gut audio montage. Over a black display screen bearing the date Sept. 11, 2001, we hear overlapping snippets from actual emergency calls positioned on that day: the shaky voices of frightened folks within the final moments of their lives. Instantly afterward, Bigelow leaps forward to 2004, eliding the start of two wars and the early years of the bin Laden manhunt.
Maya (Jessica Chastain), a younger CIA agent, has simply confirmed up for her first day of labor at a “black website” in Pakistan. Maya’s first day on the job is spent observing whereas a fellow agent, the burly, bearded, disconcertingly laid-back Dan (Jason Clarke), makes use of enhanced interrogation methods to subdue a recalcitrant prisoner named Ammar (Reda Kateb). We’re speaking very enhanced, together with waterboarding, excessive stress positions, and, in a later scene, sexual humiliation and confinement in a small field. Watching these horrific acts unfold, Maya tenses up and glances away, expressing—we predict—our personal disquiet at Dan’s strategies. However when the detainee, left alone together with her for a second, begs her for assist, her reply is icy: “You possibly can assist your self by being truthful.”
For the following two hours and 40 minutes (consider me, they fly by), we hardly ever depart Maya’s facet for a minute, but we by no means actually come to grasp her as a personality. Aside from a borderline-fanatical dedication to the duty of finding and killing bin Laden, this terse, unsmiling lady has few discernible traits and no household historical past or romantic connections that we all know of. We scarcely even get to see the within of Maya’s condominium in Islamabad, the place she’s stationed on the U.S. Embassy. This can be a film whose drama takes place largely in boardrooms and in entrance of file cupboards, because the monomaniacal Maya struggles to persuade her intransigent higher-ups (together with Kyle Chandler as her dismissive boss, Mark Sturdy as his dismissive boss, and James Gandolfini because the gruffly avuncular head of the CIA) of the significance of remaining targeted on bin Laden.
It’s solely on the very starting and the very finish that Zero Darkish Thirty capabilities (brilliantly) as a ripped-from-the-headlines political thriller. A lot of the remainder of the time, it’s a office drama a couple of lady so good at her job that the majority of her colleagues suppose she’s loopy. (One of many few exceptions can also be a lady: Jennifer Ehle shines in a small function as a fellow agent who units up an ill-fated sting operation with an al-Qaida informant.)
Ultimately, Ammar offers up the identify of a person reputed to be Osama’s courier. (Considerably, he presents the data as the results of a bluff of Maya’s devising, although it’s a gambit whose efficacy depends on the disorientation Ammar feels on account of his torture.) From there, it’s solely a matter of time—and persistence and deductive reasoning and screaming matches with Kyle Chandler and his superiors—till the courier is tracked to bin Laden’s compound and the plan for the assault is put in place.
That virtuosic raid sequence, a lot of it filmed within the sickly greenish mild of the troopers’ night-vision goggles, is the film’s cinematic crown jewel, a nerve-fraying masterpiece of real-time suspense—nevertheless it’s additionally utterly indifferent from the principle narrative of the movie. The Navy Seals who take part within the operation present up so late and are sketched so unexpectedly, we by no means even study their names. This was little doubt a deliberate alternative on Bigelow and Boal’s half, an try and honor the troopers’ actions as a unit reasonably than specializing in their particular person personalities. However the impact is that the Seals come off as faceless defenders of the homeland. We don’t know who they’re or how they really feel concerning the grim job they’ve been assigned to hold out—which incorporates the point-blank capturing of a lady and the terrorizing of a houseful of youngsters.
Wrestling with the query of how torture is dealt with on this movie, I couldn’t cease flashing again to Jack Nicholson’s indelible diatribe on the finish of the in any other case forgettable 1992 court-martial drama A Few Good Males: “You don’t need the reality as a result of deep down in locations you do not speak about at events, you need me on that wall, you want me on that wall.” (The wall in query was one across the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, a spot that, in that extra harmless time, signified a final bulwark within the Chilly Struggle reasonably than a sordid holding pen for indefinitely detained terror suspects.)
By thrusting the typically unsavory practices of the CIA brokers who hunted down bin Laden below our noses, is Bigelow trying to align herself with the belligerent bluster of Nicholson’s embattled Col. Jessup? Zero Darkish Thirty, as single-minded and emotionally distant as its heroine, performs its playing cards so near its vest that it’s not possible to inform. However it is a important, disturbing, and essential movie exactly as a result of it wades straight into the swamp of our nationwide trauma concerning the battle on terror and our prosecution of it, and nobody—both on the display screen or seated in entrance of it—comes out clear.