Sony-Columbia Pictures’ “Zero Dark Thirty” was the next installment from 61-year-old Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, whose 2010 Best Director and Picture Award for “The Hurt Locker” put her into elite Hollywood company, right next to her “Titanic”-famed ex-husband James Cameron. Tackling the hunt for Osama bin Laden was no easy feat, even for the mega-talented Bigelow, trying her best to repeat the same magic seen in “The Hurt Locker.” While defusing Improvised Explosive Devices [IEDs] in “The Hurt Locker” provided edge-of-the-seat suspense, Bigelow’s task was more complex telling a long and at times tedious story of the 10-year hunt for the world’s most dangerous terrorist: Osama bin Laden. “Zero Dark Thirty,” the military term for 30-minutes past midnight, follows a young CIA agent Maya [played by Jessica Chastain] in her quest to crack the Bin Laden case.
Bin Laden, credited with the Sept. 11 terrorist attack that downed the World Trade Center Twin Towers and destroyed part of the Pentagon, disappeared off the radar about Nov. 16, 2001, only three days after the Taliban were driven from Kabul. While former President George W. Bush tried his best to get Bin Laden when he escaped on motorbikes with Taliban’s Mullah Mohammed Omar over Afghanistan’s Khyber Pass through Tora Bora Dec. 14, 2001, Bin Laden eluded capture until killed by Navy Seals Team-Six May 1, 2011. Much of “Zero Dark Thirty” tracks Maya’s connection with CIA interrogator Dan [played by Jason Clarke], hoping to extract actionable intelligence through “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including sleep deprivation and “waterboarding.” U.S. officials, including ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), reject the film’s premise.
“Zero Dark Thirty” suggests strongly a connection between “enhanced interrogation techniques,” AKA torture, and tracking down Bin Laden’s courier to his fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Working non-stop often without sleep, Maya puts the disparate pieces of intel together to finally track down the 50-something terrorist to his remote hideout. What McCain and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) reject is that the Guantanamo Bay “enhanced interrogation” of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—or any other detainee—did not lead the CIA to Bin Laden’s 33-year-old courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. If Bigelow and her co-writer Mark Boal’s screenplay were really so off-base, the White House, CIA or any other government agency would have filled in the gaps. From the movie’s perspective, it was Maya’s tenacity that led to Bin Laden.
Without giving the missing details, the official U.S. version of events that led to Osama bin Laden involved tracking down al-Kuwati to Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. Whether or not “enhanced interrogation techniques,” defined by the 1949 Geneva Convention as torture, led to the actionable intelligence is anyone’s guess. U.S. officials deny that torture coaxed out the name of Bin Laden’s courier, eventually leading to his whereabouts. Bigelow and Boal made every effort to stick to known facts about how the single-minded focus of a female CIA agent led to Bin Laden. If the government has other relevant information other than “enhanced interrogations” they should come forward with the facts. “Zero Dark Thirty” does a brilliant job of telling the official government story, without taking a position on the moral appropriateness of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Unlike the natural suspense of “The Hurt Locker,” the tedious and frustrating nature of the Bin Laden hunt left the middle part of the film dragging, though Bigelow does a masterful job of keeping the film moving with clever editing, various camera angles, close-ups and hand-held camera work. Chastain’s performance conveys Maya’s relentless pursuit of Bin Laden, putting former President George W. Bush’s Sept. 20, 2001 words to a Joint Session of Congress into action: “We will not tire. We will not falter. And we will not fail,” Bush told the nation still shocked by Sept. 11. While Bush was not able to claim Bin Laden’s head, it took 10 long years and a new president to finally redeem his promise after Sept. 11. Chastain’s performance should warrant an Oscar nomination, despite the lack of character development in Bigelow and Boal’s screenplay, maybe the weakest part of “Zero Dark Thirty.”
“Zero Dark Thirty,” while not meeting or exceeding Bigelow’s 2009 “The Hurt Locker,” tells a compelling story of the world’s most intense manhunt. Without enough depth into Maya’s character, Bigelow and Boal still convey the dedication, single-minded focus and intense commitment needed to attain the nearly impossible goal of getting Bin Laden. Perhaps Maya’s stoic pursuit of Bin Laden without any reference to her history or own needs conveys the one-dimensional focus required of dedicated CIA operatives tasked with protecting U.S. national security. While it’s easy to criticize Bigelow’s film, the U.S. government hasn’t filled in any gaps of unanswered questions about what led to Bin Laden’s death. While the CIA gets all the credit, there’s a virtual black out of the role Pakistan—including former government officials—played in Bin Laden’s death, including who got the $25 million reward.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’s editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.