“What are you seeing tonight, Dad?” “We’re going to see that Zero Dark Thirty movie.” “Cool! The one with the Navy SEALs? That got that Bin Laden guy?” “Yep.” “Can I go?” “Nope.”
He’s too young to see it. The kid’s 8, born three years after some 3,000 people died horribly on 9/11. Yet he’s as much in the shadow of that day as any of us, because his parents are part of the generation that was redefined by it. Some of us lost friends and family on that day. Some of us lost jobs when the already sluggish economy tanked even more in its aftermath. Many of us went to war, and a lot of us didn’t come back. Ten years of bloodshed and fear. We all lost something.
And our kids were born into a world he made. Yeah, that Bin Laden guy fucked us all pretty good.
The world Bin Laden made is the real subject of Kathryn Bigelow’s amazing, gut-wrenching Zero Dark Thirty. Before the film was released, the objections were flying: it’s pro-torture! It’s anti-torture! It’s pro-military! It’s anti-military! It’s a CIA propaganda film! It’s an anti-CIA diatribe! You could make compelling arguments for all of the above. Zero Dark Thirty holds a mirror up to the people whose job it was to hunt down and kill a mass-murdering terrorist who had confounded them for years, often with the knowledge and occasionally the support of our “allies.” Their world, Bin Laden’s world, is a place where mistakes result in lots of innocent people dying.
And die they do – in shopping mall massacres, bus explosions, and car bombs, all of which are shown as the consequences of the hunt’s ongoing failures. Of course, we know how it ends. What’s remarkable about the movie is that even knowing that “UBL” (the CIA acronym used the proper spelling of his first name) ends up in a body bag does nothing to lessen the suspense.
Driving the narrative is Maya, a CIA “targeting analyst” who spearheads the efforts to find Bin Laden, played by Jessica Chastain as a much saner version of Homeland‘s Carrie Mathison (and based, if SEAL Team 6 operator Mark Owen’s firsthand account of the mission No Easy Day is to be believed, on a very real female CIA analyst who had a similar job). Most of the film is devoted to the CIA’s detective work–the mundane tasks of surveillance, study, and in one case flat-out bribery–that allowed intelligence agents to track down the location of Bin Laden’s compound, located in plain sight in a Pakistan suburb.
Maya and her team do their work by any means necessary–yes, her colleague Dan is a fan of waterboarding, and if you’ve ever wondered what that particular form of “enhanced interrogation” is all about, your questions will be answered–in order to find Bin Laden. Is the movie pro-torture? Depicting something that happened and endorsing it are two different things. Does Dan’s harsh treatment of his prisoners yield results? The years roll by, the terrorists keep killing, the leads dry up – until they don’t. Whether or not waterboarding and other similarly horrific interrogation methods have anything to do with the breaks that lead to the Abbottabad raid…well, in the end that’s for you to determine.
It seems odd to not to want to spoil Zero Dark Thirty; the movie’s a procedural, much like the classic All The President’s Men. We know how it ends. But for two hours, I felt like the breath was being squeezed from my lungs. At times it feels like Bigelow’s intent is to do precisely the opposite of what Tarantino did in Inglourious Basterds - she’s creating a reverse revenge fantasy, in which the Big Bad doesn’t go down in a hail of gunfire, but lives on to plot more mass murder. (Bigelow’s use of a dry-erase marker to generate suspense is positively Hitchcockian.) And the raid itself is a brutal, harrowing setpiece that’s free of any rah-rah Top Gun bullshit. There’s no celebration at the end of Zero Dark Thirty. The SEALs relief at the end comes more from having survived the encounter than having shot the leader of al-Qaeda. The film leaves the viewer feeling much the same way.
Have you seen the flick? What did you think? Comment away!