Before Zero Dark Thirty had so much as a title—and even once it was made, but before many had seen it—both sides of the political spectrum ignited with speculation over how The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal would frame the hunt for Osama bin Laden. On the right, some were concerned that its original release date, before the 2012 presidential election, would boost President Obama, blowing up like a Hurt Locker IED in the face of anyone who questioned his foreign-policy credentials. And in the weeks leading up to opening day, the left has gone full Drudge Siren—or the lefty equivalent of Drudge Siren, anyway—over reports that the film depicts torture as an essential in finding bin Laden, thus justifying a morally repellent tactic. Both cases testify to the potency of popular entertainment in general and a bin Laden movie in particular: Zero Dark Thirty stands to become the dominant narrative about this important historical event, no matter its distortions, composites, or other slippery feints of storytelling. In that, it wields a dangerous power.
So how can a movie about the bin Laden killing thread such a thin needle? The answer is: It can’t. And it hasn’t, based on some reactions pegging it as a torture apologia, a CIA hagiography, or a little of both columns. Others have pointed out that in the film, not a single useful piece of information is gleaned from torture, and it’s more concerned with the reality of torture than its efficacy. The latter case is far more convincing, but the fact that two people can watch the same movie and come to opposite conclusions speaks well of Bigelow and Boal’s thrilling procedural, which has a journalistic quality that still allows for some nuance and ambiguity, where the fog of war can cloud up the scene. It’s impossible for a film like Zero Dark Thirty to be entirely apolitical—and presenting it as a piece of just-the-facts reportage makes it, if anything, more suspicious—but the Rorschach blot Bigelow and Boal have made out of this loaded story speaks well of their methods. A rough triangulation of opinion columns puts them right on the money.
Zero Dark Thirty opens with a blank screen and a recording of a real 911 call on September 11, 2001 from a frantic woman trapped in one of the Twin Towers. Though it feels exploitative to goose the audience’s emotions with the cries of the doomed, Bigelow want to charge the film with a specific kind of energy—a sense that getting the man responsible for 9/11 is imperative, not just as an act of justice, but as an act of revenge. So when she cuts immediately to two years later, when CIA officers are waterboarding a detainee at some Pakistani black site, it’s not what the torture yields that’s ultimately important, but the suggestion that the lust for revenge led the country to a very dark place. The film permanently resides in these shadows, and the ultimate dispatching of bin Laden offers nary a sliver of light.
The torture scenes are only a small part of Zero Dark Thirty, but they set the stakes for the film’s hero, played fiercely by Jessica Chastain, who reacts to her first day on the job with revulsion over her colleague’s brutal techniques and a resolve to keep moving forward. The bulk of the film details Chastain’s relentless, decade-long search for bin Laden as it bumps up against cold trails and dead ends, with only fitful support from the CIA and other bureaucrats who dismiss him as marginalized (or dead) and seek targets elsewhere. Any progress owes more to the patient detective work of surveillance and information-gathering than “enhanced interrogation,” and it eventually brings Chastain and her team to the trusted courier who will lead them to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
With Chastain’s single-minded obsession as the through-line, Zero Dark Thirty takes the reliable form of procedurals like All The President’s Men and Zodiac, staying doggedly on the investigative path while keeping the political and cultural aspects of the case at arm’s length. It’s about a professional doing her job with integrity and grit, and it would be extraordinarily absorbing if Chastain were merely hunting down the world’s most delicious omelet, much less bin Laden. As with The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and Boal approach people doing dangerous jobs with a respect that veers uncomfortably close to reverence, but they’re meticulous, process-oriented filmmakers, and their quest for verity isn’t just a pose. They offer up a document for fact-checkers.
Zero Dark Thirty escalates mercilessly in tension as the net tightens, ending with the raid on Abbottabad, a sequence so masterfully staged that it sets off a chill of recognition. But the tone here is no different than the tone of the torture scenes toward the beginning of the film: Getting bin Laden isn’t the cathartic triumph at the end of a hard road, but an absolute horrorshow, treated without the faintest squeak of rah-rah triumphalism. The one piece of affirmative dialogue (“Geronimo”) arrives as matter-of-factly as “Let’s roll” in Paul Greengrass’ excellent United 93, blessedly free of any impulse to underline heroic action. There’s no question Zero Dark Thirty honors the competence and sacrifice of people involved in this operation, but within responsible limits, i.e. without Maverick and Iceman trading bear hugs on the aircraft carrier.
The final shot confirms it: Zero Dark Thirty isn’t meant as a stirring tribute to the men and women responsible for taking down bin Laden, though their bravery and persistence is duly respected. It’s a film about revenge and its immense costs, different from a common vigilante story because of the target, not the arc. The events of 9/11 call for a response, but from the torture scenes in the beginning to the raid on Abbottabad a decade later, Zero Dark Thirty takes the audience down a grim, terrifying path that isn’t relieved by the death of the elusive man who killed 3,000 Americans. Some demons cannot be exorcised.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Zero Dark Thirty’s Spoiler Space.