“Zero Dark Thirty” refers to the military term for 30 minutes after midnight, which suits the intrigue surrounding a mission like the one the movie dramatizes. It’s the title for Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to “The Hurt Locker” (once again reuniting with writer/producer Mark Boal), and it proves an intense and realistic drama, concerned with both the political aspects surrounding the hunt and the military operation itself. This is meant to be the definitive account of the raid, and what an account it is.
The main character is a CIA officer named Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. This is a tough and obsessive woman who was recruited right out of high school (however possible that was), and her sole task is to find Osama bin Laden’s location and take him out. The movie spans many years, starting with the hunt initiation after the 9-11 attacks. We get to see the different approaches from two different administrations, which includes “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” or as they’re more commonly known, torture. Much of the first quarter of the movie depicts in graphic detail the water boarding procedures and other physical and psychological tortures inflicted upon the prisoners. Despite how some have chosen to interpret this movie, there is nothing glorified or even particularly useful gained from this form of interrogation.
Since the movie’s release, it’s been surrounded and even overshadowed by the controversy of how torture is depicted. Going in, I half expected to see some sort of message advocating its use in retrieving information. Having seen it however, I found I interpreted the images a bit differently. The controversy is unwarranted and the movie’s supposed support of torture or the effectiveness of its uses is false. The structure of the story is to catalogue everything that went into finding Osama bin Laden, and prior to President Obama’s inauguration, torture was used. What we see in the movie is a considerable amount of time wasted using these despicable tactics and what the main characters get from it is minimal, only leading them in circles and never providing what they need to solve their problem. In a later scene, it turns out that the clue they needed was right in front of them for years but went unnoticed due to “human error” (which is pretty messed up). Ringing endorsement of the effectiveness of torture, this isn’t.
The movie is very apolitical, choosing to depict the facts and events as they happened. In a way, this decision actually reduces the involvement of certain key figures like President Obama, who is never shown to be directly involved. It’s possible that they tried too hard to avoid pandering to any political association, thereby denying credit where it’s due. Where it truly excels as a drama is in Kathryn Bigelow’s fantastic direction and the strong performances from actors like Jason Clarke and especially from Jessica Chastain. The character of Maya is complex and driven in a way that perhaps we’ll never understand. The deeper she follows the trail, the more it dominates her life. It’s evident that she is not one for friendships and an active social life, and hunting down bin Laden becomes her only reason for living.
Kathryn Bigelow employs a lot of techniques to emphasis the recent history of the plot, giving it a very realistic and documentary feel. It doesn’t rely on much music or obvious visual flare to keep the audience’s attention, instead utilizing the inherent desperation of Maya to catch this terrorist and the intensity of the hunt to sell the action and suspense.
The raid on Osama bin Laden’s home is an incredible sequence, made all the more intense by the way it’s shot. Bigelow employs a lot of hand held cameras, POV shots, mock security footage, and night vision to make the entire climax feel gritty and realistic. The climax is like watching actual footage, and it gets so intense that it feels like your right there with SEAL Team Six. Even though the outcome was a major news event, it still retains a significant amount of suspense. It’s as thrilling and exciting as it could ever be, showing Bigelow’s mastery of shooting realistic action sequences.
Not nearly as controversial as it’s made out to be, “Zero Dark Thirty” is what it is: a powerful and realistic account of one of the most famous and long sought after events in the aftermath of 9-11. It’s gritty, fascinating, graphic, historical, and one of the most intense dramas of the year.