If you enter Zero Dark Thirty with the expectation of seeing a broad retelling of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, then you will be disappointed. In actuality, Zero Dark Thirty is a lot more simple, yet a lot more complex, than that. It is surprisingly narrow in focus, following the arc of one driven CIA agent over eight years in her quest to find and kill Bin Laden, and the friends and foes she gains and loses along the way. By the end, the film transcends its dubbing as ‘the Osama Bin Laden movie’; instead, the film is a measured and unhurriedly charted portrait of tragic obsession. And it is all the better for it.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA agent put to the task of finding Bin Laden. Initially, she is fresh from university – timid, inexperienced, and malleable – and by the end of the film, she becomes strong, jaded and lonely, with the realisation that her entire life has been consumed by her occupation. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (responsible for 2009’s The Hurt Locker) have created a fascinating protagonist, and they never lose sight of the fact that Maya is the driving force behind the film.
Sometimes we sympathise with her, and other times our own subjective morality conflicts with her personal judgment. She is our portal into this world, and we track the development of her psyche through the many years, many countries, and many terrorist attacks that she experiences – everything from the London Bombings in 2005 to the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing in 2008. Chastain is wonderful in this role; her pale, innocent face in the opening sequences, where she is clearly confronted by the torturous acts she witnesses, gradually expresses an impenetrable and emotionless resoluteness. As an intimate spectator, we observe the excitement when new information comes to life, the frustration when her leads don’t pay off, and, eventually, her inordinately melancholic exhaustion.
Zero Dark Thirty is a technical marvel, and its two-and-a-half hour running time is entirely warranted. Through the taut editing, the suspense builds and builds in every necessarily long scene. The film relies on being as immersive as possible, and this is achieved not only through the characterisation of Maya but also through the hand-held cinematography of Grieg Fraser, evoking the chaos of this environment. It is structured episodically, using title-cards like ‘Trade Craft’ to subtly establish the thematic undercurrents of each sequence. Zero Dark Thirty is much like David Fincher’s Zodiac (not merely because they are amongst the few films beginning with the letter ‘Z’). Like Zodiac, each scene is meticulously crafted, and despite the running-time, each scene is completely necessary and adds something hugely important to the plot’s momentum or the characters. And, like Zodiac, it is chiefly about the obsession that comes with crime, using the context of the Afghanistan and Iraq War as a backdrop for this.
Characters come and go, but the one constant is Maya, and through her relationships with other characters, we obtain an acute insight into many different stages of the hunt for Bin Laden (albeit not an entirely historically accurate one). Zero Dark Thirty commences with a scene straight out of Fahrenheit 9/11, where we see a blank screen accompanied by the iconic sounds of 9/11. When I saw that Zero Dark Thirty received a mere ‘M’ rating in Australia, I was concerned that the film might pull some punches, but as this opening minute or so confirms, it certainly does not.
The subsequent sequence runs for about half-an-hour, in which a fellow CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) brutally tortures and waterboards a man, Omar, who is thought to have information regarding Bin Laden. The idea that the film excuses or even condones torture is ridiculous. When Dan viciously asks Omar what day a supposed terrorist attack will occur, Omar proceeds to yell every day of the week to avoid further humiliating torture. This is at the very start of the film, and I think that simple fact alone is telling: in the end, it wasn’t torture that led to anything. Bigelow presents it in a faux-documentarian way, showing us that torture was indeed a key component of early US involvement in the war, whilst evincing the unreliable information that torture provides and showing the consequences of these actions on the characters’ psyches. It is all the more disturbing when you consider that the people who we are ostensibly supposed to align with – the Westerners – are those who are enacting these despicable acts; a subversion of the stereotypical depiction of torture in cinema. As the film progresses, we see the more investigative, espionage-esque side of the hunt, and Maya’s new administrative role behind a desk in an office.
Apart from the peppering of on-the-nose lines of dialogue throughout, particularly in the office-based scenes, Zero Dark Thirty is filled with fairly impressive and intelligent filmmaking. Because of Maya – because the filmmakers decide to follow the mania, the plight, and the sensations of just one person – it becomes more than a series of tense and well-made, but ultimately unconnected, sequences. Zero Dark Thirty is a film that does not necessarily judge the actions of its characters; it simply forges a narrative version of what may have happened in the ‘greatest manhunt in history’, and asks the audience whether the funds, resources, time and methodologies used to extract information in this hunt were worth it.
All that Maya has done since completing school is hunt Bin Laden, so now that he is dead, what does she have left to pursue? As the final shot of the film lingers on Maya’s weeping, emotionally taxed face after being asked where to dump Bin Laden’s body, Bigelow asks the audience whether the toll on individuals’ psychological stability and existential purpose was worth it. Her answer is a resounding no – but the film is open-ended enough for you to come to your own conclusion about the war.