Before it even hit theaters nationwide, Zero Dark Thirty faced both criticism from political voices such as Senator John McCain and Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress (among others). Though it’s rare to watch a movie without any context, it was also hard not to consider the controversy while watching the film. I think, in the end, the questions raised by both the film’s critics and detractors work in favor of the viewing experience.
Zero Dark Thirty focuses on the hunt for Osama bin Laden at the hands of young CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain). The narrative starts in Pakistan two years after the September 11th terrorist attacks as Maya learns interrogation techniques (read: torture) from Dan (Jason Clarke) and begins to figure out the office politics and procedures with fellow agents Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), Jack (Harrold Perrineau), and Thomas (Jeremy Strong), and their director Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler). Maya and Dan break down a detainee, Ammar (Reda Kateb), who gives them the first hint of Abu Ahmed (Tushaar Mehra), the courier connecting OBL to the rest of his network. Over nearly a decade, Maya tirelessly follows the lead, even after she looses colleagues, faces opposition from Bradley, and thinks the trail may have run cold. She never doubts that if she could find the courier she could find the main target. Eventually, however, her obsession pays off and against the odds, she is able to locate Abu Ahmed and his house, where she believes OBL is hiding. Though Maya still has some battles to convince her bosses, the film closes on the night raid in which SEAL Team 6 assassinated “public enemy number one.”
I was wary of seeing Zero Dark Thirty because of the controversial torture violence. The first forty-five minutes of the film are really painful to watch because of this aspect. Despite what detractors claim, however, I don’t think the film is pro-torture. I think the portrayal is far more complicated than that. To leave the violence out would be a lie. These tactics were used and perhaps it’s important for the public to acknowledge and think critically about that fact and its human, moral consequence. In the end, it isn’t torture that gets Ammar to talk, but kind, respectful treatment and a savvy mind-game in which Maya uses his prolonged isolation to trick him that he had already given them important intelligence. At the same time, he arguably wouldn’t have been so vulnerable without his inhumane treatment up to that point. The film wades deep into shades of gray. Though I would prefer not to see the violence—and that it not to occur at all—the way the film approaches the violence does not feel gratuitous or exploitative of the subject matter or the people involved.
Though occasionally the film’s chaptered structure feels a little disconnected or choppy, the screenplay takes a remarkably ambiguous stance on the subject matter. Writer Mark Boal and Director Kathryn Bigelow have transformed what could have been a chest-thumpingly patriotic moment into a story that raises important questions about violence, intelligence, and the human cost of the manhunt without obscurring the weight of the mission. I think it’s a testament to the film that even though I knew the outcome, I was on edge for the entirety of SEAL Team 6’s raid. By the last half hour, I was so tired of bloodshed that I just wanted them to finish their job without anymore collateral damage. The closing moments of the film capture this ambivalence through the reactions of those involved. The last shots of Maya allow for the audience to read their own emotions—whatever they may be—onto her reaction.
The writing of Maya’s character was fascinating and kept me somewhat conflicted for most of the film. I think it’s pretty rare to know so little about a protagonist. We don’t know her backstory, just that she’s recruited into the CIA out of high school. We don’t know anything about her family, friends, and so on. All we know of Maya is what we see of her on the job. In this way, the audience is given the same tunnel-vision with which Maya lives her life. Everything is wrapped up in the search for Abu Ahmed. Furthermore, Maya is both strong and determined and clearly a pain to her bosses, but not in a way that portrays her as shrewish or nagging. I think the film features an extraordinarily balanced, true-to-life portrayal of a woman in a leadership position. Maya is the central, driving force of the action without having to apologize for being a woman and without her intelligence and determination being marked as exceptional for a woman in a man’s world. At the same time, as the film progresses, there is plenty of room to doubt her judgment, as she gets so obsessed with her work that she may compromise her objectivity. Jessica Chastain does an amazing job playing Maya with nuance and authenticity. Her physicality emphasizes Maya’s awareness of her own vulnerability and she conveys anger and frustration without veering into hysterics. She captivates.
For a surprisingly nuanced approach to loaded subject matter, the magic trick of managing to capture engaging characters with basically no character development, but a slightly drawn-out pace, I rate Zero Dark Thirty 4/5 stars
Zero Dark Thirty was written by Mark Boal and directed by Kathryn Bigelow. It runs 157 minutes and is rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.
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