Zero Dark Thirty is a necessary film, and a rare one because it portrays a female protagonist that is not in a romcom. Like Lincoln and Argo, it is based on a true story, and while keeping to real events and to firsthand accounts of the May 1-2 raid [zero dark thirty is military speak for half past midnight] and killing of bin Laden, there has been some controversy—as if Zero Dark Thirty were supposed to be a documentary, or as if it glorifies torture -- about director Kathryn Bigelow’s choice to open the film with scenes of “enhanced interrogation.” While no torture by the CIA yielded info about bin Laden’s whereabouts, director Kathryn Bigelow thought it important to include it as part of the fabric of the ‘war on terror,’ a war which included torture by both the CIA and the military, the latter which may have yielded info from detainees in Guantanamo. As if we needed reminding why the U.S.A. so relentlessly pursued bin Laden, scenes are preceded by a dark screen where we hear the voices of phone calls from the World Trade Center and hijacked planes of 9/11.
Much like Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty is a long and plodding, explicative film for which the outcome is already known. One might have to enjoy history to love either film. Unlike Argo, which rearranged facts to be more cinemagraphically appealing, there were few moments of tension or suspense for me in Zero Dark Thirty. [Even in Django Unchained, foretold of the legend of Broomhilda rescued by Siegfried, the tension is not ‘Will she be rescued?’ but rather by how much injury and to whom.] I love film, yet find that sometimes a picture is not worth a thousand words. Never was this more true for me then after reading in the New Yorker (August 8, 2011, Getting Bin Laden by Nicholas Schmidle, Reporter at Large) the account of the raid on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. There Schmidle apprises us of the rush to the third floor of the compound in which the first SEAL to arrive on the third floor, seeing two women shielding bin Laden, throws his own body over these two wives-- lest they are wired with bombs-- so as to minimize the potential damage, protecting the SEALS coming behind him. I found this account in the New Yorker very moving. But Zero Dark Thirty is not a film about the raid, its climax, nor about the Seals who kill him once found. Instead, it is about one CIA agent’s (Jessica Chastain’s Maya) dogged mission to find bin Laden.
I applaud Bigelow-- one of the rarely acclaimed female, great filmmakers, and a great filmmaker of any gender—who paired up again with writer Mark Boal (also together on The Hurt Locker, Best pic, Best director, 2010). Unlike the Hurt Locker, this film builds little character. [We get to see James Gandolfini (the Sopranos) cast as Leon Panetta, then CIA Director.] I also am proud of the CIA agent, a heretofore unsung hero, who used intelligence and determination to have her theory triumph in a man’s world. Perhaps this dedication to single mindedness leaves no room for expansive character portrayal. Perhaps Zero Dark Thirty had to tediously plod along as it did so that the audience might get a taste for how the seemingly interminable decade long hunt, the grueling beurocratic slog, might have sometimes felt to the team of CIA agents dedicated to this task. We don’t get discouraged; but they could not have been certain of the outcome.
Almost ten years and billions of dollars later, Maya leaves Pakistan, alone, on a cargo plane, mission accomplished, and is asked “Where do you want to go [from here]?” Are her tears of exhaustion, loss, or relief?