Kathryn Bigelow‘s previous film, The Hurt Locker, opened with the statement, “war is a drug.” Like The Hurt Locker and her earlier film K-19: The Widowmaker, Bigelow’s new picture, Zero Dark Thirty, deals with a deadly obsession created in wartime. But unlike Hurt Locker and K-19, Zero Dark Thirty exists on a different battlefield—one of intelligence gathering, subterfuge, shady tactics, and misinformation. It’s a battlefield that is arguably more lethal than what we’ve seen before. It’s not where we place our troops. It’s where we place our citizens, and every moment in a post-9/11 world is a time bomb waiting to explode. In this world, Bigelow has crafted a thrilling and disturbing tale about how deeply an obsession can warp an individual, and how far we’re willing to go for the illusion of safety.
The film opens on a black screen as we’re forced to listen to the 911 calls made by those who were in the World Trade Center on September 11th. This potent reminder leads us into the next scene, which takes place two years later as neophyte agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) receives a brutal lesson in how the CIA operates. After witnessing the torture of a detainee at the hands of fellow agent (Jason Clarke), the broken-down captive eventually releases the name of a man who might be the key to finding Osama Bin Laden (although it’s worth noting that this revelation comes not during the torture, but through trickery and non-violent interrogation). From this point, Mark Boal‘s script reads like a classified report as we continue jumping forward in time to key points in the battle to find the most wanted man in U.S. history.
The structure of the story is one of the film’s greatest strengths and also it’s only weakness. Because it comes off as a report, Zero Dark Thirty is matter-of-fact in its observations. We are witnessing key events in Maya’s mission, but her only life is the mission. It puts us perfectly inside Maya’s head as a woman with no world beyond the agency. After being recruited right out of high-school, Maya’s entire focus is the hunt for Bin Laden. It’s a quixotic mission that becomes increasingly unhinged as Maya continues to focus on one man who has become a smaller piece in the expanding War on Terror. These facts are enough to convey the point, and what isn’t deemed pertinent are the blacked-out sections of this classified report. We know exactly as much as we need to know.
This also creates the film’s biggest hurdle, which is throwing up an emotional barrier. Zero Dark Thirty can be cold, calculating, and methodical in its methods as we trek across a 10-year journey to catch a man that some thought had perished well before his death on May 2, 2011. The events feel so much bigger than any of the characters, and we can only witness the futility of their mission as terrorist acts continue to happen.
Our lifeline to the emotional heart of the film is Chastain. She is absolutely essential in making Zero Dark Thirty more than a dramatization of the events leading up to Bin Laden’s death. She is the face of the hunt, and over the course of the story we see the toll it takes on her. More importantly, we see it without having to take time out for “personal” matters. There’s no love-interest, there’s no phone call with parents, there’s not even a framed picture on her desk. There is only the transformation of someone born into the 9/11 world and then consumed by the hunt for its creator. It is a masterful performance, and it is the key to not only the emotions of the film, but its larger points.
Zero Dark Thirty has come under fire for supposedly being “pro-torture”, and such a claim misses the subtext of the picture (so it’s not surprising that the claim has been made by people who haven’t actually seen the movie). This isn’t 24. The torture is meant not only to make the viewer uncomfortable, but also contemplative. A scene of torture directly follows the calls of the 9/11 victims. Torture happened, and this ugliness didn’t come out of the ether. It came from how Bin Laden warped our values, and it foreshadows how the hunt for Bin Laden will warp Maya.
That’s the importance of the scene, and it’s emblematic of how Bigelow handles the movie. The structure may be impartial, but we’re meant to see it through Maya’s eyes. We have to identify with Maya and her world; we don’t have to like it. There’s a complexity to this world, and it’s a miracle that despite the red tape, the competing agendas, and the questionable intel, we still shot Bin Laden in the face.
This isn’t a rah-rah story, and despite the outcome, it isn’t even a happy one. Even during the raid on Bin Laden’s compound, we’re not excited or counting down to Bin Laden’s death. Bigelow creates an air of tension so palatable that it feels like we’re in the compound. In the span of thirty minutes, Bigelow has encapsulated everything that came before: a hunt, locked doors, shifting tactics, encroaching external forces, and violence that could happen at any moment. Creating brilliant subtext from popular thrills is Bigelow’s talent, and she has created a movie that’s even better than The Hurt Locker.
After I heard Bin Laden had been killed, I didn’t feel the catharsis of some of my friends, especially those who had been in New York or had lost someone in the attacks. For me, it was a rhetorical question: “Is the war on terror over now?” What did killing Bin Laden accomplish? Did it end terrorism? What did this mission mean beyond what was arguably a personal vendetta? Killing Bin Laden was the right thing to do. He was a soldier on a battlefield of his own making, and he deserved to die horribly on it. But the battlefield didn’t go away. So what’s next? And when you define your life by the death of another, how can your life continue? Does obsession ever end? Zero Dark Thirty has no easy answers, nor should it.