‘Zero Dark Thirty’ in Review



Sony Pictures/MCT Nominated for Best motion picture of the year,
Sony Pictures/MCT Nominated for Best motion picture of the year, “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Zero Dark Thirty, the brilliantly crafted film from director Kathryn Bigelow  (The Hurt Locker), opens with a black screen and a mosaic of panicked voices. The voices are from 9/11 and they set both the mood and the motivation for the entire film.  The film is a deftly and passionately handled chronicle of the hunt and raid to kill Osama bin Laden. But it is also prominently about Maya, (Jessica Chastain, The Help) the CIA operative, in charge of the hunt, and her tireless effort to find and kill the world’s most wanted terrorist.

The very next scene begins in 2003, in a torture chamber. A man with potentially useful information is shackled with his arms stretched out. Bloody wounds mark his face and his treatment is severe. The main interrogator, Dan (Jason Clarke, Lawless), uses water boarding and locks his prisoner in a small crate as part of his “enhanced interrogation,” a euphemism for torture. This depiction caused its own kind of interrogations from government officials and media, whether practices like that existed and if it actually gleaned essential information.

There is a tendency to look at both of Kathryn Bigelow’s films, Zero Dark Thirty and 2008’s Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, as either bold forms of propaganda or at least morally biased depictions of war. But these films, especially Zero Dark Thirty, are not meant to end discussion; rather, they invite even more ethical questions about this specific 10-year period of war, and the United States’ current presence in the Middle East. This, in effect, is a bold and daring piece of cinema that can only be compared to a few other historical pieces of fiction, which includes her last feature.

The narrative has a documentary feel to it as we follow Maya through her emotional journey in a job that requires her to put emotions aside.

Her hunch is about a man named Abu Ahmed, an Al-Qaeda courier she believes, through many other testimonies and witnesses, works and carries out messages for bin Laden. Discovering Ahmed’s true intentions is an arduous process, filled with governmental speed bumps and more assured opinions, some from an eventual female friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle, Contagion). Reluctant opinions also come from her boss Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler, Super 8), who has his own dilemma between weighing domestic safety and Maya’s requests for bigger-picture enforcements.

Her struggle is depressing, scarring and real. Maya has no real backstory, no explanation for her training or past experience. This is her big job, and, as she points out when asked about her prior history as an operative, her first and only job . Maya’s struggle humanizes her and unites the audience behind her. Death is always lurking, near roadside bombings and breached doors. She tells a Navy Seal in the midst of mission gone wrong, “A lot of my friends have died trying to do this. I believe I was spared so I can finish the job.”

Chastain’s performance is slowly calculated and masterfully designed; portraying a woman whose character is split into thirds following significant events of this hunt. In that first scene, she supplies Dan with the water for the man’s torture, slowly accepting her duty with trembling hands. As time progresses, so does intensity, and willingness to grab answers from hesitant mouths. After moments of gunfire and death, she loses her stateside innocence altogether. We gravitate to her bridled confidence and tempered self-assurance and sit in awe.

Bigelow yet again paints the otherworldly surroundings of life in the Middle Eastversus the stark banality of life back at home. It is a commentary on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and human life. Reflective, iconic moments permeate throughout Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow captures the small things in her frame such as a desktop background or an unresponsive instant message, and fills them with power.

We are not concerned as much with trivial things as much as we are with Maya’s personal journey. The strategy of war is inferred, much like the torture. Instead of focusing on tactics, we become immersed in the field and in the plight of a woman hardened early by the brutal interrogations. We become immersed in the necessary ground components of a mission, tag-team phone relays and small bribes that all factor into the monumental equation.

Bigelow separates this ten-year journey with chapter cards, leading up to the decision to infiltrate the white washed mansion in which Maya believes Bin Laden resides. This is a longer process in which conjecture must be strong, because “it was stronger for Weapons of Mass Destruction,” the many higher-ups nervously posit.

The final raid on bin Laden’s high-walled fortress in Abbattobad is one of the most riveting final 30 minutes of a film I’ve seen. The swarming of Navy Seals (most notably played by Chris Pratt, Parks and Recreation) from their helicopter journey to their night-vision, green-lit raid is a master course for inducing suspense. At over 150 minutes long, this is the fastest and most unnoticeably “long” movie this year, a testament to the film’s moving arc.

Again, the level of torture has spurred debate. It happened, but to what extent? Would it have mattered if things were conducted differently? That is then the next question, something only a parallel history could tell. Bigelow also asks us the more important question of “where do we go now?” The decade-long hunt, the lives lost, all of it now completed with a few bullets, and yet we march on, but where? What’s the next move? This is the existential question that all of America must face.