This is a rather difficult movie to get a solid reaction to. Which is my first reaction… and, strangely, quite telling about the movie.
“Zero Dark Thirty” has been advertized as Kathryn Bigelow’s (“The Hurt Locker”) movie about the massive manhunt for Osama bin Laden, terrorist and mastermind of 9/11. I don’t think that advertizement is quite right having now seen the movie. Yes, the hunt for bin Laden is the crux of the plot and the driving motivation for the main character, but the movie is about her more than the search.
The movie focuses on Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative whose only task with the agency during her entire time there has been to find bin Laden. She starts in Pakistan in a cell with fellow CIA operative Dan (Jason Clarke), two years after the events of 9/11. This set of scenes, where they (pretty much entirely Dan) are torturing and interrogating a detainee, has caused a lot of ruckus and protest, but I’ll talk about that later. When Maya is introduced to her new workplace and coworkers, including her boss Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), she sets herself up as extremely driven, somewhat forceful and very independent in her thinking. These traits continue to grow and grow throughout the entire film.
As the movie progresses, Maya remains intent on hunting down bin Laden through whatever leads possible, specifically trying to desperately find bin Laden’s supposed most trusted courier, a slippery sort that may not even be alive and is certainly going by a nom de guerre. Throughout the movie, we’re given a modern history lesson, remembering terrorist attacks that have happened in the past decade that many have tried, and sometimes succeeded, to forget, such as the London bombing and the hotel terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia.
If the ultimate result of this work escapes you, then you haven’t likely been conscious for the past couple of years. Unlike another film of 2012 that I actually found somewhat similar in subject matter and treatment of the history, “Argo,” even though the endings of both movies are known before going in, “Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t set itself up as a thriller the way “Argo” did, and that’s why the story isn’t about bin Laden to me, partly. It’s not an edge of your seat “Will they get him and how?” story. Part of that is because we know so much about it, unlike the story involved in “Argo.” This movie sets itself up to be constantly chaotic and worrisome. Not a tense thriller, per se, but a consistent pace of loss and desperation. The movie is confusing and desperate, though easily followed and actually well organized. It’s even organized into chapters, almost as though it were a mini-series being shown all in one go.
But beyond the confusion, chaos and desperation is the focus on Maya. The movie continues just slightly past the operation that took out bin Laden, and the final scene of the film allows the sense of catharsis that I was honestly worried we’d never get. “Zero Dark Thirty” doesn’t really send your emotions on a rise and a fall… in its very first scene, it puts them in a tense, somewhat uncomfortable spot and leaves them there until the end. And what a fantastic first scene, too. Honestly, the very first and very last scenes were my favorite parts of the film. The first scene is what I’m calling the 9/11 scene, where the audience is left staring at a black screen for a minute or two, listening to the sounds of people talking on phones and radios while the 9/11 attack was underway. It’s harrowing, uncomfortable and pitch perfect for setting up the movie.
As for the torture/waterboarding scenes… Look, I think most Americans generally accept that we probably tortured some people in our hunt for bin Laden. It’s pretty much a certainty. America doesn’t exactly have the best track record with prisoners anyway, if anyone recalls Abu Ghraib. Is the movie supporting that? No. No more than “Die Hard” supports single-handedly taking on a bunch of gun-toting terrorists. Whether the torture was the right or wrong thing to do is left entirely to the audience. This movie makes no moral statements about the hunt for bin Laden, and the waterboarding isn’t the only uncomfortable thing done in the movie, in my opinion. The movie is about telling the story of one woman’s drive to find bin Laden. Everything else is up to you.
Now, it’s a good movie, definitely… but the catharsis is perhaps a bit wanting, and the emotions are perhaps a bit single-note, though constantly rising. It’s certainly not my favorite movie of 2012, or even my favorite Best Picture nominee… but it is good. And Chastain does a fantastic job, particularly in the final scene. The film will probably take home at least one Oscar, and I think people should see it, even if it’s just to remember what the world has been through over the past decade.