Zero Dark Thirty: The Greatest Manhunt in American History

Well, shit. I almost don’t want to write this movie review because I’m already visualizing the political arguments that could (and probably will) ensue. In which case, let’s just nip this in the bud before I even get started. Yes, Zero Dark Thirty is about the CIA and US Navy SEALs who found and killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011, so it’s political, controversial, and rather recent. But other than that, there is no dichotomy of political beliefs or discussions about gun control. So please do me the wonderful courtesy of shutting the f*** up so that we can talk about the movie.

As much as I love a good battle scene, I’m actually not one for contemporary war or military films. And I’m not talking wannabe films (like that godawful Battleship), where military characters go up against aliens or cyborgs. I mean the films about actual events. It’s not that these films aren’t good; I just can’t enjoy them. I think it’s because this is the one genre where I don’t appreciate fiction.

Now, I’ve never been in the military or gone to war, so I don’t have any real reason (like personal experience with combat) to pass this kind of judgment on these films. But I feel like movies often over-fictionalize historic events to sell tickets, you know? War might make for a good story, but the history, itself, is dramatic enough. Adding unnecessary drama (like explosions à la Michael Bay, cheesy film scores, love interests, and fictionalized “We will fight!” speeches that probably never happened) to an already dramatic event where hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands died isn’t exactly my cup of tea.

Here’s something that might better explain what I mean—the magazine I work for featured a story on an Iraq War veteran who has struggled with PTSD since he returned home, and one of the things he said in the story stuck with me. He said, “What I always tell people is that, in combat or war, no one’s playing music in the background. It’s not passionate; it’s pure survival instincts.” That’s pretty deep, right? And it completely deconstructs the fictionalized combat in this movie genre. I think, because of that, I can’t look at most historical war movies in the same light anymore. The real question now is whether Zero Dark Thirty over-fictionalizes or stays pretty straightforward with its story…

Here’s how the movie’s official site describes the plot: “For a decade, an elite team of intelligence and military operatives, working in secret across the globe, devoted themselves to a single goal: to find and eliminate Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty reunites the Oscar winning team of director-producer Kathryn Bigelow and writer-producer Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) for the story of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man.”

Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal has said that this is “a movie not a documentary.” While we’ve heard countless rumors that a source—or even multiple sources involved with Operation Neptune Spear—leaked the story to Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow, it’s impossible for any of us not involved in the operation to know whether or not this film is entirely true. Sure, it’s based on actual events, but there are always movie elements, even in their slightest, that are fictionalized in order to entertain moviegoers. So really, the only truth of this movie is that, until Operation Neptune Spear is declassified by the U.S. government, this is the version of the story the general public will assume as truth. Quite frankly, I don’t know whether that’s a good or bad thing.

The story, itself, follows CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) who spends nearly a decade searching for Osama bin Laden in the Middle East. And I use the term “follows” loosely here because Maya isn’t exactly a driving force in this film. If anything, she’s just a guide through the story. Why do I say that? Well, what’s interesting about Maya is that we know absolutely nothing about her. No, seriously—if you’ve seen this movie, I dare you to come up with at least ten descriptions of Maya that don’t include her appearance, her job with the CIA, or her obsession with finding bin Laden (Oh, you can’t do it? Shocking!).

But Maya isn’t the only character like this. In fact, all of the characters in Zero Dark Thirty from interrogating mentor Dan (Jason Clarke) to CIA Islamabad station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) have little to no background development. This might seem like poor character crafting on Boal’s part, but I think it actually serves a purpose for the story. After all, the movie’s plot is about the greatest manhunt in U.S. history, not about the lives of the CIA operatives doing the hunting. By making the characters just as stoic, impersonal, and determined as their roles within the CIA, the characters no longer become the focus of the movie, which allows the audience to become emotionally invested in the plot—and let’s face it, the plot IS the only part in which we’re emotionally invested.

But that’s not to say that Jessica Chastain’s performance wasn’t good. I thought she did extremely well creating a multi-dimensional character with what little background she was given. Every time we saw Maya examining evidence or watching tapes of prisoner questionings, Chastain made the audience feel just as frustrated and exhausted with the process as Maya was. Even in the scene where Maya yelled at station chief Joseph Bradley, we could literally see how crazed this manhunt made her by the reddening of her face, the blazing look in her eyes, and the bulging veins in her neck. Still, the best example of her multi-dimensional performance came in the scenes where Maya betrayed her own ethical reasoning out of determination to find bin Laden. You can see this paralleled in a scene at the beginning of the film where Maya is clearly upset by the treatment of a prisoner at the CIA Black Site and a later scene where she relies on torture to get information from a different prisoner.

What’s funny to me was that Chastain did such a good job making the audience feel as desperate and obsessed as Maya was with finding the link to bin Laden that we suddenly didn’t care that she was torturing another human being—we only cared that she was getting closer to finding bin Laden. Not many characters with so little background can convince you into forgetting your own ethics. Above all, I have to say my favorite scene with Chastain though was the one in which Maya and the other field agents met with the CIA director (James Gandolfini) about bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. After Maya speaks her mind, the CIA director asks her who she is, to which she replies, “I’m the motherf***er who found this place, sir.” Can we create a category at the Academy Awards for Best Movie Line? Because I’m pretty sure this one would win.

Now, let’s talk about that torture controversy because I know some of you are dying to discuss it (or at least read about it). Several torture scenes are shown at the beginning of the movie that include waterboarding, starvation, sleep deprivation, assault by deafening music, nudity, dog collars, and psychological torment. While I’m not disagreeing that it can be upsetting to watch, I’m trying to figure out exactly why people find these scenes so controversial, and I think I’ve nailed down a reason (Just wait, I’ll get to it). Yes, torture isn’t an ethical practice, but who said humans were ethical when desperate for information? How many people have you known that have been given a position of power over others (physically or mentally) and not abused it?

Let me remind you of the Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by noted psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo. You see, I don’t think people actually have a problem with the fact that they were shown torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty. After years of violence in films (including other torture scenes), I’d say we’re actually rather numb to it now, which is another discussion in and of itself. No, I think the reason people were upset about the torture scenes in this movie was because they were shown scenes of torture that has actually been documented, and they would rather operate under the assumption that our government would never let anything so unethical happen.

If anything, the fact that Zero Dark Thirty included these scenes made the film a more realistic, accurate illustration of post-September 11th events that occurred during the U.S. occupation of the Middle East. And still, it could’ve gone farther with the torture but chose not to (I mean, there have been reports of torture procedures from countries around the world that include rape, genital twisting and deformation, electrical shock, 24-hour beating, mauling by animals, etc.).

What’s strange though about the inclusion of these torture scenes is the fact that they essentially provide the audience with a mixed message about torture. If you pay attention, you will see that there are both arguments for and against torture in Zero Dark Thirty. The “for” would be that the movie’s source clearly suggests that torture ultimately led to bin Laden, as Maya and the other CIA operatives didn’t find him until after they tortured a prisoner with knowledge of bin Laden’s inner-circle. The “against,” however, is obviously the mistreatment of prisoners, which was echoed through the very disgust Maya displayed at the beginning of the movie while she watched the torturing. So which is it? For or against? That’s the problem—we don’t know. There’s a true controversy for you.

It’s hard to make a movie about a true event that occurred only a year or so ago that is not only sensitive to the source material and accurate but entertaining as well. While I can’t speak the accuracy or the source material, the movie was certainly entertaining. What I found most appealing about it though was that Bigelow didn’t turn it into a pro-American or anti-American film. Sure, there’s symbolism all over the place (like when Maya stands next to the flag in the conference room or the fact that both Bush and Obama’s pictures are hung in the CIA Islamabad station), but it wasn’t in your face like other war films. As I said, this movie’s focus was on finding bin Laden. Bigelow has a very sterile approach to this, which makes me feel like the majority of this movie could be true because it didn’t seem as biased. Then again, I’m watching it from my American point-of-view, so someone outside of the U.S. could see a bias more clearly than I could.

The scene depicting Operation Neptune Spear is fairly intense, though not in the way you might imagine. Rather than adding extra fights into this scene to make it more compelling, Bigelow and Boal stick with straightforwardness and show the SEAL team sneak into the compound in the dead of night (at 00:30…get it?) with near-perfect execution, only taking out the people on the first and second floors who get in the way of their main target on the third floor. And what’s even more amazing was the way Bigelow filmed the scene where the SEAL team killed bin Laden. It didn’t turn into a “F*** Yeah, America!” scene with bald eagles, waving flags, and high-fiving Americans posing next to a bloodied bin Laden.

No, it was more of a “We shot a man on the third floor, who was said to be our target. Was it him?” scene. It was fantastic. There was no Die Hard-esque vengeance. Just a straight account of a very reliable SEAL team and well-executed orders. Bigelow didn’t even really show the dead bin Laden from a personable point-of-view. The movie audience only saw a blurry picture of him in an image displayed on a camera and then a profile shot of him in a body bag when Maya looks at him after the team brings him back. Also, it should be known that there was nothing to suggest that President Obama made the call on this operation (which, if you read the news, you’ll know he didn’t really know about it until the SEAL team was already deployed). The only scene where someone made the call was when George (Mark Strong), one of the higher-ups in the CIA, told Maya to round up the troops for that evening because the operation was a go.

The only problem I had with that scene was that, at times, it was almost too dark to see what was going on. And I know Bigelow chose to film it like that so that the audience really got an idea of just how incredibly dark and sneaky this whole operation was. But still. Just a tad lighter might have spared me the headache due to eye strain. Then again, that headache might also have been caused by Bigelow’s reliance on handheld cameras (which I hate). But I will commend the night-vision camera filter that she used to film the compound scene. It made me, as an audience member, feel like I was in the operation, which was probably another reason why that scene seemed so intense.

Overall, Zero Dark Thirty is a sterile, straightforward approach to a true event, which gives director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal slightly more credibility. This movie isn’t about the CIA operatives who worked to find Osama bin Laden, nor is it about SEAL Team 6, who eliminated him, which we can tell because we are given barely any information about the characters beyond their names and jobs (if that). Instead, the movie is focused on the operation, leaving the characters to act more as pieces of the puzzle than the finished puzzle, itself.

Jessica Chastain’s performance as main character Maya was very good. And while I do agree that she deserved to be nominated (and win a Golden Globe) for her role, I don’t think her performance will stand up to the other award nominees come Oscars time because Maya has less development than the other actresses’ characters. The torture controversy, which you’ve definitely been hearing about, isn’t really a controversy when viewed in terms of violence shown. We’ve seen violence in films for decades. The true controversy with Zero Dark Thirty‘s torture is that the audience receives a mixed message on whether or not this movie is for or against torture, which, while baffling, gives the movie more depth.

Zero Dark Thirty: A

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