The hunt for Osama Bin Laden was about more than payback for 9/11. It was qualified vindication for a superpower that seemed significantly less so in light of said overt terrorism. The scope of the World Trade Center attacks warranted a seminal search and destroy, and over the course of the next ten years, two administrations and a dedicated team of intelligence operatives made the seemingly unthinkable happen.
When a group of highly trained Navy SEALs raided the Pakistani compound of the international fugitive, they found a veritable recluse unready to meet his fate. Zero Dark Thirty is the story of getting from ground zero to a military issue body bag. Along the way, it questions our interrogation techniques as well as the CIA’s sexism and clueless self-serving bureaucracy.
Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a young operative just out of college when the film begins. Assigned to the Bin Laden case, she is immediately teamed up with a seasoned agent (Jason Clarke) who works in one of those whispered-about secret locations around the world. He spends his days “interviewing” the enemy and his nights wondering if his sometimes immoral actions are having any effect at all. A small piece of information about money laundering and a courier sparks our heroine’s interest, while those in power (Kyle Chandler, Mark Strong, James Gandolfini) want results, not hunches.
After surviving a hotel bombing, an assassination attempt, and the deaths of colleagues, Maya makes some progress, with all leads pointing to a suburban building outside Abbottabad with Bin Laden. Coordinating a military team (Joel Edgerton, Chris Pratt, among others), she provides a single significant order: capture or kill the world’s most wanted criminal. Going about their mission with stealth and skill, the soldiers are systematic… and ultimately successful.
Considering she earned an Oscar the last time she delved into our current War of Terror, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty remains a revelation. It’s better than The Hurt Locker, its narrative more nimble and less episodic. Throughout the course of this crackerjack thriller we see the sad, sometimes scandalous way in which America gathered its intel through the eyes of calculated mindsets measuring out the lesser of several evils. Human life is trivialized in the name of information, and while the players are repulsed by the tactics, they can see no other way.
That’s the strongest statement in a film full of fledgling propaganda — that is, immovable villains hell-bent on destroying the West require similarly stubborn responses, no matter what the Geneva Convention says. While fingers are rarely pointed, the use of torture in this film is never fully supported, nor is it fully denounced. It’s just another level of legitimizing, part of the end game which leads to Bin Laden’s death. Thanks to the amazing work of Chastain, Clarke, and the rest, we sense the dilemma. Information is not going to be gathered effortlessly. Evil intentions apparently mandate equal malevolence.
With its brilliant high tech treatment of the subject and the classified nature of the disclosures, Zero Dark Thirty almost feels like a documentary. It’s authentic and real, reveling in its insider bent while condemning such insularity.