“I’m the motherf**ker who found this place.” With that line Jessica Chastain as CIA analyst Maya sums up her single-minded, no holds barred pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and the film’s narrative, the search for where the defiantly elusive Bin Laden is hiding.
Zero Dark Thirty is an extended, big budget procedural that details the painstaking manhunt for the most wanted terrorist in American history. If like me you wondered why it took so long to capture Bin Laden, the film based on accounts of actual events relates how incredibly complicated, dangerous, and grueling such a massive undertaking is and the toll it takes on those involved.
The movie opens with audio of 9/11. The familiar visual of the planes hitting the towers is not shown and so the impact as you listen to the voice of one of the victims tell the 911 operator “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” is as immediate and heartbreaking as it was on that day. The story jumps directly from that horrific moment to the Saudi Group, a team of CIA operatives in the process of extracting information from a detainee with the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, which is the euphemism used by U.S. officials for torture.
That is the situation Maya walks into her first time in the field where she meets Dan (Jason Clarke) who is leading the interrogation. The film is graphic in its depiction of torture and waterboarding to be specific. It’s up to the audience to decide how they feel about the use of torture as a means of gaining information from detainees. At issue is how far do you go? And, if the U.S. crosses this line can’t we expect other countries to do the same? And, finally if we accept this quid pro quo as a consequence, does it matter if it allows us to achieve our objective? Do we resign ourselves to this view as the cost of saving lives in today’s world?
Director Kathryn Bigelow infuses a matter of fact tone to the film that serves the subject well. There are no over the top action sequences. Instead Zero Dark Thirty depicts a long, frustrating and exhausting investigation through the eyes of Maya who becomes convinced that the key to capturing Bin Laden is finding his most trusted courier. Chastain is perfect as the fierce, focused and driven Maya who is unshakeable in her conviction of how to find Bin Laden and will stop at nothing including angering her superiors in order to bring him to Justice. She is relentless and in watching Maya who is based on a still active CIA field agent you come to the understanding that this is the mindset it takes to fight terrorism.
Jason Clarke doesn’t miss a beat as Dan who is willing to do what it takes in the field yet recognizes his own limitations. Kyle Chandler manages simply with his facial expressions to convey the conflict faced by the Pakistan station chief Joseph Bradley who must balance politics and immediate safety concerns with what his agents need in the field.
It is fascinating to watch as slowly but surely despite the many setbacks, the CIA operation begins to close in on the location of Bin Laden. The final sequence depiction of the Navy Seal Team 6 mission is tense and gripping even though we know the outcome. Bigelow puts the audience dead in the center of the action and it feels as if you’re right there as they breach the secured compound level by level to finally take down Bin Laden.
As Maya prepares to leave after achieving her mission, there is a mixture of relief, exhaustion, grief, and satisfaction on her face. She has paid a heavy price and the accomplishment of Zero Dark Thirty is that it takes you inside and forces you to confront the toll, the complexity and messy consequences of the war on terror even when you “win.”