Movie review: Zero Dark Thirty

Brilliant, historical and perhaps allegorical

ZDT is a director Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant telling of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, starting in the sand-blown huts of various CIA dark sites and culminating in the raid on UBL’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Little is held back – depictions of torture and brutality, even the infamous practice of waterboarding – in the hunt for information about UBL’s whereabouts. The section of the film that details the operation by Seal Team Six is riveting. Shot alternatively in near darkness and via night-vision goggles worn by the troops, the operation is shown second by second, with its missteps (killing the unarmed wife of a resident, the crash of one of the copters) and successes (killing bin Laden, ransacking his computers and files). But while the film depicts America’s greatest success in the War on Terror, its mood is subdued -- not quite celebratory.

The film’s main character, Maya, a fictional female CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain (and who may represent a single person or the hundreds of analysts and agents who worked on the hunt) is a bit of a cipher. She is slight and freckled, is called a “killer,” and is inexplicably drawn to take down the Al Qaeda leader. Maya is hardened, or pretends to be, and unfazed by violence. But in spite of representing the desire of the American public for UBL’s scalp, she’s kind of hard to root for. She is taciturn, cold and driven by unknown motives. She unflinchingly watches a man beaten to provide evidence, then coolly tells him that the severity of his treatment is in his own hands. She has no backstory, though it would be easy (if clichéd) to give her one – say, that her Dad died in the Twin Towers or on Flight 93. But though the film begins with a series of desperate phone calls from 9/11, that attack seems almost beside the point to Maya -- as though her desire to take down UBL has taken on a life of its own, apart from any connection to the assault on the homeland.

There are strange inklings throughout the movie that we are watching the intersection of physical reality and its underlying shadow of meaning, For instance, the search for bin Laden’s courier and the raid on Abbottabad are told realistically and in detail. But the moment of UBL’s death is curiously concealed, and is just-so-slightly inconsistent with written accounts. (Caution: spoilers ahead!) Two SEALS creep toward Osama’s 3rd floor hideout via a narrow stairway. They hear a noise and shoot through a curtained door. When they enter, UBL is on his back, dead or nearly so, with two of his wives screaming nearby. The SEALs pump two more rounds into bin Laden to ensure his demise. An AK-47 is seen in the room, but mounted on the wall above UBL’s bed, not even within arm’s reach. Viewers who might want to see him die a slow and painful death – face to face with his lethal visitors, perhaps, or menacing them with an automatic weapon -- will be disappointed. His death seems anti-climactic– intricately planned and executed, to be sure -- but hardly the cinematic climax that such films promise. Does Bigelow show us what really happened? Is there a message in this her restraint at the moment of triumph? Or is she exercising poetic license to make a point? If so, what point? That exterminating this world-menacing terrorist leader was the equivalent of killing a fly with a sledgehammer?  Osama bin Laden, the most-wanted terrorist kingpin, murderer of thousands, ends up being an unarmed medieval in a robe and turban, hiding with his wives and kids in a ramshackle concrete “fortress,” tracked down over 10 years and the cost of how much treasure, and eliminated by the world’s most disciplined, armed and technically advanced armed force of all time. If Kathryn Bigelow is trying to say something here, I can only wonder what it is.

For all its realism, great writing and fine acting, ZDT is hard to applaud whole-heartedly. Maybe we have just become nuanced about our place in the world. Openly hating a militant Muslim and cheering his death is perilously close to hating everyday Muslims – our workmates and neighbors. Better not to go there. Then there’s the whole speculative depiction of Operation Neptune Spear, the raid on UBL’s hideout. Given the secrecy of the raid, and the reluctance of most of the participants to talk about it, we aren’t completely sure what happened. We do know that Bigelow made some possibly unhistorical choices. The depictions of UBL’s nasty head wound are cleaned up here. Who knows what else was doctored to make the raid more palatable? Another issue with cheering for the film is the violence and self-propelling viciousness that we are asked to accept as the means for bringing bin Laden to justice. I am not naïve enough to think war and espionage are pretty. But I was unable to walk away from ZDT without a few thought about the morality of torture and “extraordinary rendition,” that sanitized term for sending suspects to countries where physical and mental abuse of prisoners is accepted.

At the end of the film, Maya is bundled, alone, into a cargo plane. Asked where she’d like to go, she does not answer. Instead, she weeps softly. This scene brings her character closest to that of Americans reacting to the death of their number one enemy. Which is: not much at all. Whether due to war weariness or lack of confirming video, most of us did not rush into the streets when we heard the news. A decade of searching had turned UBL into a dangerous, but fairly contained evil – a devil in a glass jar. His death had little influence on those who took to heart his call for jihad against the West. As the recent Boston Marathon bombings show us, the enemies of the West do not need a living UBL to inspire them. Self-radicalization may be bin Laden’s toxic legacy to the world.

Why Maya’s tears? Were they tears of relief at the end of a grueling, years-long effort to rid the world of an evildoer? Were they delayed tears of grief over friends who died trying to bring UBL to justice? Were they tears of lost innocence, mourning for a perhaps nonexistent time when Americans didn’t torture and were not put in a position where they had to? Did the death of bin Laden, the man whose death had overtaken her entire career, leave her with a sense of lost purpose? Or did she see the death of Osama bin Laden, after so much effort and expenditure,  as insignificant in relation to her expectations? We don’t know.

This ambiguity – not the detailed reconstruction of bin Laden’s hideout or the tactics of Seal Team 6 -- may be the film’s greatest achievement, depicting events hyper-realistically, while allowing their multifaceted sorrows and joys play out in the viewer’s mind long after the closing credits.