The hunt for Osama bin Laden is long and full of frustrations in Zero Dark Thirty, a War on Terror war movie.
How do you feel about torture? Were you rooting for Jack Bauer to do whatever he had to? Or do you think everybody in U.S. custody should have an open trial? Zero Dark Thirty neatly rewinds the question to before Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, 24, etc., by starting the movie with a jumble of audio from Sept. 11, 2001. The clearest recording features a desperate woman in one of the Twin Towers on the phone with a 911 operator, describing the floor burning around her and aware that she is about to die. It is harrowing; your body tenses up, and you feel anxious before anything other than title cards have appeared on the screen. One could call it a cheap shot, but it’s also not a bad way of getting you to set aside for a moment what you think now and remember what you thought then.
Then we jump forward a few years to a CIA site where a prisoner is being interrogated by Dan (Jason Clarke). He leads a team that includes Maya (Jessica Chastain), an agent who is, like Dan, investigating Al Qaeda and searching for the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders. This would be one of those “enhanced” interrogations that does result in one small shred of information about a man named Abu Ahmed who may or may not be real, may or may not have something to do with Bin Laden and may or may not be alive. To hunt this man down, Maya attends several interrogations and gets bits of information that confirm and don’t confirm and possibly even refute the statements of other prisoners. As the movie jumps forward in time, she is five and then seven and then more years away from 2001, with only the faintest hints at who Bin Laden might have talked to back then, much less where he has gone in the years since. Working in Pakistan with other Al Qaeda-hunting agents (Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau and Kyle Chandler as the station head), she looks at grainy photographs and spends a lot of time talking about possiblies and might-haves that could lead to Bin Laden, all while trying to stop the next attack. The bombings in London in 2005, the Islamabad hotel bombing in 2008, the Times Square bombing attempt in 2010 — they all remind Maya and her colleagues that they aren’t just hunting a fugitive but trying to bring down an active terrorist network.
It should not spoil anything to say that Maya does get a lead that eventually takes the CIA to a large and well-fortified compound in Pakistan. She presents the initial evidence to the CIA director (James Gandolfini, who, though it isn’t directly stated, is doing a Leon Panetta), but, before a mission can even be considered, the evidence gathering must continue. Maya stews for many frustrating months while a case is slowly built that this location is housing the world’s most wanted man.
The 2011 raid on Bin Laden’s compound is the last 30 or 40 minutes or so of this more than two-and-a-half-hour movie. It’s a credit to the film that even though this is very recent, very well-known history, the movie still manages to be edge-of-your-seat suspenseful throughout. And even more impressive is that while, yes, there are torture scenes and explosions and whatnot, a good part of the investigating done by this movie’s characters involves talking and looking at photographs and old reports. For all that we get the action-packed helicopter raid, we also get grueling, disappointment-and-dead-end-filled legwork, which is nice. On Homeland (particularly this season), the investigative breaks come easy. Here, they are are hard won.
Speaking of Homeland, yes, Maya is very similar to Clarie Danes’ Carrie. This is a movie and not TV, so there isn’t as much (or any, really) back story or character development, but we get a similar sense of a woman who is absolutely consumed by her work. She is clearly smart, maybe the smartest person in the room, but she is not the most politically savvy (or, perhaps, not interested in being politically savvy) and saves none of her energy for winning allies. I had a hard time not seeing Carrie while watching Maya, but if the two bleed together, that’s OK. As Danes herself pointed out at Sunday’s Golden Globes, this is a great time on TV for female characters, hers included. I left wishing I could see the next season of Maya and where Chastain would take her now that this agent has met the biggest challenge of her relatively young career.
But back to torture.
I’d argue that Zero Dark Thirty is neither pro- nor anti-torture. It shows “enhanced interrogation techniques” as what happened. It shows Maya getting information as a result of such an interrogation but also not knowing how much of the information she’s getting is good. Are prisoners giving up genuine secrets? Or just things they made up to stop the pain? We see Maya and Dan working to check facts given by one prisoner against the information of another, but they are never quite sure. While this is, of course, a movie with facts given a dramatic spin, a lot of Zero Dark Thirty felt like it was history being laid out there — take it or leave it, this is what (sort of) happened. A
Rated R for strong violence including brutal and disturbing images, and for language. Directed by Katherine Bigelow with a screenplay by Mark Boal, Zero Dark Thirty is two hours and 37 minutes long and distributed by Sony Pictures.