9/11 introduced the world and the 21st century to a new kind of evil. Al-Qaeda struck unannounced and nearly unseen, inspiring fear and a gnawing sense of helplessness that no one has been able to fully shake since. The rules of war changed once again, and the U.S. government adapted with wiretapping and “enhanced interrogation” techniques. If there was one boogeyman behind the madness, it was Osama bin Laden, though it would be an oversimplification, of course, to blame it on any one individual.
The triumph of Zero Dark Thirty is that it takes what could have been jingoistic genre fare — the pursuit and killing of bin Laden — and tangles it in the global turmoil we have lived through over the past 11 years. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the Oscar-winning pair behind The Hurt Locker, open the film with a traumatic audio montage of 9/11 distress calls and dot the background and, in a couple of startling moments, the foreground of the plot with other al-Qaeda attacks, like the 2005 London and the 2008 Islamabad Marriott bombings. The result is an epic of incredible focus, a 157-minute film that earns every second. Zero Dark Thirty belongs to us, now, as a candid document of the anxiety and dislocation of our time. The filmmakers closely follow historical record while creating a piece of art, a riveting cinematic experience and the best American film of the year.
Like Argo and Lincoln, spoiler warnings are unnecessary. The foreknowledge of the main plot puts added pressure on the filmmakers to find other ways to generate suspense. Bigelow, cinematographer Greig Fraser and editors Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg respond with a look and feel more polished and artful than a BBC news feed, though not by much. That is a compliment, as the film never brings attention to itself. Sure, Fraser composes beautiful images — Arab fruit markets never cease to dazzle — and Bigelow packs some profound juxtapositions into single frames — a North American map reflecting a white, Muslim CIA official (Fredric Lehne) practicing Salah in his office must mean something. But there is a spontaneity to the film that keeps you constantly on edge, in constant fear that innocent people will die yet again. And when a few dozen of them inevitably do, the film cuts to actual news coverage of the attack, and the line between reenactment and reality stays blurred.
CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) is, in her own words, “the motherfucker who found” bin Laden. She truly is, but the film — in one of the its boldest choices — shies from granting its protagonist too much sympathy. She often loses it with bureaucrats, from her Station Chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) to the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini, here for comic relief), and not in a sassy, Sandra Bullock kind of way. She is unhinged, bordering on insanity. Multiple characters at multiple times stress the impossibility of her goal or the incompetence of her colleagues; most memorable is a tirade by Mark Strong, reminiscent of Alec Baldwin’s “Always Be Closing” speech from Glengarry Glen Ross but with, you know, actual stakes. While you may admire her resilience, Maya comes off as cold, internal and sexless, the opposite of the giddy Southern housewife she played in The Help. She finds a friend in rival-turned-BFF Jessica (Jennifer Ehle, unjustly shut out from supporting actress awards so far), but even when they trade texts with “brb” and “u” in them, Maya always bends the conversation back to bin Laden. Chastain keeps Maya at arm’s length, which is incredible to think about — somehow, the mastermind behind bin Laden’s death is just not very likable.
Parallel to the film’s treatment of Maya lies the big rhetorical question of Zero Dark Thirty: We killed bin Laden, but at what cost? This core, and obviously unanswered, question has gone over the heads of all the senators and columnists manufacturing a baseless controversy over the film’s alleged “pro-torture” stance. Indeed, the first half-hour consists of graphic sequences where agent Dan (Jason Clarke) and eventually Maya waterboard and emasculate an al-Qaeda suspect (Reda Kateb, in a thankless role), not to mention confine him to an awfully small box. For one, the prisoner never seems to disclose any actionable intelligence, though that plot point is up for debate. The larger issue remains Maya’s, and in turn the U.S. government’s, own morality in executing this mission. Regardless if torture was necessary to locate bin Laden or to win this war, Zero Dark Thirty wants you to consider whether these two goals were morally bankrupt from the start. Far from lionizing President Obama or excusing Dick Cheney, the film sees past partisan politics and quietly contemplates whether justice during wartime can be called justice at all. The final shot grants credence to this reading, and it is not heretical to consider the cost of a 10-year quest for vengeance. In this way, Zero Dark Thirty approaches something akin to Direct Cinema (a documentary film genre that aims to record objective truth) by staging some version of the truth, refusing a didactic little bow and letting the audience think for itself. That last part may be the problem.
I had conflicting emotions during the final 30 minutes, when SEAL Team Six flies to, invades and clears bin Laden’s compound. Viewed on a big screen with surround sound, the experience will render you immobile (a special shout-out to sound designer Paul Ottosson, who engineers the mesmerizing stealth helicopter sound effect, and sound mixer Ray Beckett, who keeps the gunfights startling and realistic). The deliberate pacing and night-vision lighting immerse you to an almost unbearable extent, like a fly on the soldiers’ helmets. The sequence inspires fear, angst and awe, the latter of which stuns the soldier who took the final and fateful shots — all he can say is “I shot the third floor guy,” as his comrades scramble to vacate the premises. Around this moment, I was on the verge of tears as a Navy SEAL handed one of Osama’s children a glowstick to quiet her down and coax out her father’s name for confirmation. I don’t know how to explain this emotional impact or why it struck me then. The mastery of Zero Dark Thirty is that it operates on an ineffable register, free to collide feelings and abstain from easy answers. Call it relativistic or postmodern or any viable, theoretical tag. All I know is that the world post-9/11 has been one of confusion and contradiction. Zero Dark Thirty also knows this, and by draping America’s triumphant moment of victory under the same ambiguity, it has rewritten history while staking a spot in it, too.
Original Author: Zachary Zahos