As far as we know, Osama(or Usama) bin Laden was officially dead in May 2011. That is a major ‘spoiler’ to Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty”, but the movie is a gripping espionage thriller about a long, exhausting journey its central character went through for finding(and killing) the man responsible for the atrocity which changed our worldview forever on September 11th, 2001. As the movie tightly grabs our attention with its powerful moments, its expected climax is slowly and inexorably coming to us, and its stark finale at the arrival point is all the more powerful because of everything shown to us before the finale. It is her journey in the darkness filled with moral questions that matters, not the final result at the exit of the labyrinth.
The movie patiently tells us how a young CIA officer Maya(Jessica Chastain), an embellished fictional counterpart of an unidentified real-life figure currently working in CIA, comes to throw herself into a difficult and dangerous job which demanded a lot from her from the very beginning. After the chilling opening scene which features only the recorded voices calling for help on that unforgettable day of 2001, the movie moves forward to 2003, and we see a ‘black site’ where CIA incarcerated the people who might give some clues on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Maya’s fellow CIA officer Dan(Jason Clarke) tries to extract any valuable information from one of their prisoners, and he mercilessly tortures and humiliates that Arab prisoner as Maya watches the whole unpleasant process. When Dan says “When you lie to me, I hurt you.”, he really means it, and it is gut-wrenching to see how far he can go through his ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ including that notorious waterboarding.
During this striking moment of raw violence, Maya flinches a bit at first, but, once she gets used to it in a short time, she keeps maintaining her cool composure(When the prisoner asks her for mercy at one point, she phlegmatically replies – “You can only save yourself by being truthful.”). She and Dan eventually get a possibly useful clue from that prisoner(but they succeeds only after deceiving him with lies), and she moves on while gathering and analyzing many other interrogation videos for her main goal – finding the hideout of Osama bin Laden, who is usually referred to as UBL among her CIA people. She thinks she found a good lead, but, as admitted by the characters in the movie, finding bin Laden is pretty much like trying to finding a needle in the haystack – and that haystack is pretty big while also being full of the possibilities of failure and danger.
The director Kathryn Bigelow’s previous film was a great war movie “The Hurt Locker”(2008), which gave her the honor of being the first female winner of Best Director Oscar. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a lot like its logical extension; like the hero of “The Hurt Locker” struggles with the bombs and their unseen makers on the dangerous chessboard named Iraq, Maya plays her own strategy game for defeating her opponent hiding somewhere on another perilous chessboard far wider and far more complex and unpredictable. Not only she has to pay lots of attention to her work for covering her and her colleagues’ covert moves from al-Qaeda, but also she has to persuade and convince her superiors that she is following a right lead.
This process is basically tedious and frustrating on the surface as she moves around within the government buildings or concentrates on her work in the office, but, based on Mark Boal’s diligent screenplay consisting of the fictional elements and the first-hand accounts from the people involved in the operation, Kathryn Bigelow succeeds in making a taut thriller out of its rather loose narrative structure spanning around 10 years. Even when we get confused as the movie moves between many different locations and throws many things at us, we are guided by her firm, focused direction as following Maya through the dark labyrinth of modern espionage. Although we cannot see the whole picture, the movie assuringly stays in one direction which is frequently wound and turned as the time goes by, and it provides several tense moments including a nail-biting sequence clearly based on the real-life incident that happened on December 30th, 2009.
The movie is almost clinically efficient in moving its story forward in its labyrinth. It does not waste its time at all with the background history of its characters, and they are mostly defined by what they do for their work. It does not show anything personal about Maya or her co-workers and superiors, and that makes Maya look more focused and obsessed in her lonely struggle. She becomes more determined to get her unholy grail especially when, through her intuition supported by the gathered clues, she comes across a 60% chance of finding bin Laden at the location where they have never thought about. When I heard from the media about where he had been hiding(it was not so far from the Pakistan Military Academy), I could not help but think of that old Korean saying: “The lamp does not shine on its base.”
Jessica Chastain’s commanding performance in the film has received lots of critical acclaims along with several critics awards and recent Oscar nomination. After suddenly capturing our attention in 2011, this marvelous actress has kept dazzling us with her immense versatility through the parade of excellent performances in the movies such as “The Tree of Life”(2011), “The Help”(2011), and “Take Shelter”(2011), and, again, she surprises us in this movie as a strong-willed woman who will not step back at any chance. There are few moments showing the vulnerability inside her, but Maya remains as a steely woman determined to push her mission forward in men’s world, and she is not afraid at all of blatantly expressing her opinions in front of her male superiors(“I’m the motherf****r who found this place, sir! “).
While the movie is tightly bound to Chastain’s fierce performance even when she is not on the screen, the other actors do their jobs in their functional but realistic performances which contribute a lot to the verisimilitude of the film. Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, and James Gandolfini are Maya’s superiors at the CIA headquarter, Jennifer Ehle and Harold Perrineau are her co-workers, and Jason Clarke is a CIA guy who has no problem with moving from torture to office job. Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt are two members of the US Navy SEALs Team put into the clandestine operation during the climax part, and the best thing about their performances is that they are completely mingled with their co-actors while rarely drawing our attention to themselves.
Of course, the climax part is about how the US Navy SEALs Team raided upon bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan at the dawn of May 2nd, 2011. Even though everything does not look so clear in the darkness and I was not sure about its details because of that inherent weakness of this sequence, Bigelow and her actors and crews did a terrific job of generating the heavy amount of tension on the screen. It is a little confusing to watch as the soldiers are executing their risky operation while trying to hiding their activity from the Pakistani people living nearby, but the urgency during this sequence is almost unbearably palpable as it is shown through the relatively stable use of hand-held camera coupled with infrared camera; the operation must be finished quickly and precisely, or there will be a heavy price for failure.
The movie has been accused of condoning torture, but, even though I recognize a rather biased view of the movie, I do not think it approves of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, because it merely presents the torture scenes at the beginning as exactly what they really are. They are unpleasant and uncomfortable to watch as the level of harshness gets increased, and you may even feel lots of pity toward the prisoner although he is indeed associated with al-Qaeda. Yes, they managed to extract useful information from him, and it can be said that the information was one of their puzzle pieces which fortunately led them to bin Laden’s personal courier ‘Abu Ahmed’ later, but that awful fact about the savagery done under the US government and its allies in our reality remain clear in front of our eyes. They say the end justifies the means, but can we really say what have been done in the darkness during last 11 years was necessary evil?
The movie does not answer that question during its many questionable circumstances, and neither does Maya, who reveals very little about what she feels or thinks about her work as zealously devoting herself to it. After crossing so many moral and ethical lines during her long quest in the grey espionage world, she finally arrives at the end point, but there is not much of the sense of triumph or payoff or relief; we see her briefly looking at the body in the bag(the movie does not show it directly to us, by the way), and she confirms it is him, and then she just leaves.
There have been some good movies about our changed world after 9/11 recently, and “Zero Dark Thirty” will definitely be remembered as one of them. The movie is a compelling thriller drama about the real people working in their shadowy world, and, like Ben Affleck’s recent film “Argo”, the movie crackles with tension even when it is coming toward the pre-determined finale. As a matter of fact, its running time(165-min) felt quite short as my body was tightly fixed on the seat, and my attention were completely glued to its sheer suspense well supported by Alexandre Desplat’s moody, restrained score.
The movie does not express any political opinion on its drama, and some may say it is a lazy and irresponsible attitude, but I think it is a sensible decision made by Boal and Bigelow because 1) its objective attitude can induce lots of thoughts and discussions from us and 2) the story is still being continued even at present. The man who initiated everything is now eliminated and his death surely brought some sense of closure to many people, but that was something which would eventually happen, and our global world still remains as unstable and problematic as it was right after 9/11. The last line in the movie is particularly haunting to me: “where do you want to go?” She cannot answer, and neither can her country – or our world.