Almost every modern film belongs to one of two categories, narrative film or documentary film. Without a doubt, Kathryn Bigelow's film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, 'Zero Dark Thirty,' belongs in the former. This fact is not up for debate.
What makes Bigelow's film controversial is the relative short amount of time between the events the film depicts and the film's release date. Because of this short window of time, 'Zero Dark Thirty' becomes the first depiction of the hunt for Bin Laden that many in the general public will be exposed to and thus absorb. As a result, the possibility that 'Zero Dark Thirty' will become the version of events that a large number of people believe as solid fact is a significant possibility.
Why is this a problem you might ask? Well, the problem lies within the opening paragraph of this review. 'Zero Dark Thirty' is a narrative film, not a documentary, and should never be regarded as anything else.
Unfortunately, the extraordinary quality of Bigelow's film and its depiction of a real historic event creates an illusion of solid fact and truth. While the film itself opens with a claim stating the film is "based on true events," the film does not say what events are true and what events aren't. The hunt for Osama happened, torture was used and someone like Maya exists. That may or may not be the extent of the claim. The truth is that we won't know the whole story until many years from now. Therefore, several events and personal accounts are dramatized for cinematic and dramatic effect much like its fellow Academy Award contender "Argo" and its depiction of the Iranian hostage crisis.
Like many narrative films, the two films and their depiction of events is left open for discussion while with documentary film the director has an obligation to present his film as inarguable fact to the best of their ability.
Simply, 'Zero Dark Thirty' is a story within a story. It's a story about a young CIA employee with the alias of Maya (Jessica Chastain) who gets thrown into the hunt for Osama head first. The hunt consumes her in every possible way. She has few friends and few interests outside of her desire to hunt down the most wanted man in the world.
This is a film about her work, her life, her story.
This is not a film about torture.
Sure, torture is shown on screen on multiple occasions. In fact, Maya is introduced to the film by assisting her co-worker Dan (Jason Clarke) in a torture session against a detainee. However, in this instance and many others, torture is shown to be brutal, inhumane and unhelpful. In the film, the torture process seems to distract and frustrate Maya and Dan rather than provide any real progress or answers.
These negative depictions of torture serve as plot devices as much as the depiction of a torture session providing the crucial piece of evidence to find Osama in the film that can be taken as showing torture in a positive, necessary light. It's a narrative film with plot devices like any other. The film and its events should be taken as nothing more than what they are: events in a film.
To speak generally about the film, Bigelow's direction and the performance of Chastain help a film whose ending we already know the ending of to feel exciting and nerve-wracking. We are nervous for Maya and the Navy SEALs as we hope for them to succeed knowing they eventually do. Nothing feels certain, nothing feels safe.
Perhaps the best example of the film's power and quality lies with the raid on Osama during the film's finale. Each door opening and each footstep is exciting and tense. During the raid, the brutality of the SEALs is on full display thus creating a topic of conversation about combat brutality, like with torture, while leaving open the opportunity for research and discussion. In fact, the brutality of the killing of the others living in the compound is more evident than any sort of glorification of the actual killing of bin Laden which is filmed with great restraint.
In closing, Bigelow is a genius filmmaker with a talent for creating discussion and instilling a sense of reflection in those who view her films. Much like her previous Academy Award winning film, 'The Hurt Locker,' Bigelow ends 'Zero Dark Thirty' with a powerful closing scene that focuses on the main character's life that lies ahead. In her previous film, a decision on the character's life direction is made and shown. In 'ZDT,' Maya is left reflecting on her life and her future. Where do we go from here as a people and as a country? What do these events and the hunt for Osama mean for us as humans and again as a country? For both Maya and us Americans, the questions remain unanswered.
'Zero Dark Thirty' is now playing in theaters across Austin including the Alamo Drafthouse, the Violet Crown Cinema, and many Regal movie theaters. Tickets are all those theaters and more are available here.