It would have been so easy to make a terrible, terrible film about the hunt for Usama bin Laden, one that was gung-ho and reveled in and celebrated America’s great and long-awaited revenge, that exalted the CIA agents or Seal Team Six as obvious and unquestionable quasi-mythic heroes and brought out the string section and the glowing sunset shots. Some conservatives worried it would be a paean to Obama. Perhaps I’m imagining the Michael Bay version. The “oorah” version. Perhaps we will still get that movie.
But with “Zero Dark Thirty,” director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal (reuniting after the Oscar-winning “Hurt Locker”) have thankfully not made such a film. The tone is largely somber, especially in the last few minutes, which seemed appropriate to me. The characters here are presented primarily as workers, toiling endlessly away at jobs that involve a lot of making phone calls, driving around, and staring at computers. Also, they happen to involve torturing prisoners and hunting one highly elusive mass murderer. One character in specific stands out—a new officer named Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. The character, said to be based on a real person or persons, was recruited straight out of high school, and in her time at the CIA has worked on nothing but the hunt for Usama bin Laden (UBL). And now she is in a station in Pakistan, watching first with marked unease and later with cool indifference as a bloodied and exhausted al-Qaeda man is subjected to waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogations.” (There has been a lot of controversy over whether this film makes a case for the effectiveness of torture or not. It seems somewhat ambiguous to me: at one point a tortured prisoner is screaming random days of the week while being shoved into a box, but at another point, a man gives information and points out that his motivation is that he does not want to be tortured.)
Chastain gives a powerful but subtle performance, mixing intensity with intelligence. Maya is our through-line; we know next to nothing about her as a person, but we latch on to her fierce obsession and it pulls us through the film. She is always focused, always driven, and every now and then bursts forth in a potent frustration and impatience with the less dedicated or less certain around her. Maya’s single-mindedness, and Chastain’s fragile harshness (an example of great counter-intuitive casting), creates an energy and urgency that keeps the film from stagnating, even though that is exactly what is happening to the hunt for much of the middle of the movie.
Nonetheless, it is that middle section of the movie that is the weakest. It is long, and gets repetitive, with leads failing, sources lying, bosses yelling, and logistics obstructing in what feels like an endless cycle. And continued terrorist attacks (in Afghanistan and London) serve as ruthless punctuation. The chapter titles used to demarcate the film are not especially helpful in this regard, as they make it feel like whole episodes of a TV series might be passing. Momentum is definitely lost during the back half of these stretches, and Bigelow also risks losing our interest. But I think the elongated nature of this part of the film serves a specific purpose. “Zero Dark Thirty” runs over two and half hours, and when Maya and co. are stymied again and again, you feel the length of that running time, substituting for the length of years. And, as Mark Strong’s superior officer points out, they are spending billions of dollars and have nothing to show for it.
The plot structure of “Zero Dark Thirty” is also interesting in that it emphasizes the cost, not just in dollars, of the “greatest manhunt in history.” The film opens with the haunting sounds of 9/11, and then goes pretty much straight to torture. Action, reaction. It underlines that this is our response to that. Atrocity for atrocity. Maya is dismayed at first, but grows accustomed to it, presumably as most involved had to. Then comes the middle act of the film, which involves us deeply in the tense and frustrating hunt for bin Laden, and with Maya’s growing personal obsession, and then stretches that hunt out (perhaps testing our patience too far). Finally, after Maya has pushed her certainty through the levels of power, Bigelow depicts the raid itself. But it is not like an action-movie raid. It plays out in what feels like real time, painstaking and precise. The sparse, tense dialogue of the marines, the alternating darkness of the Pakistani night and the green glow of the night vision goggles—it all feels incredibly realistic. And that realism extends to the fact that unarmed men and women are shot; that children are moaning in terror. Maya, alone on a plane back to the US after having identified bin Laden’s body with a silent nod, is quiet and tearful, feeling catharsis no doubt, but we are on the outside, wondering at the cost.
Zero Dark Thirty (R) ****