It’s been nearly two years since American forces finally caught and killed Osama Bin Laden. At last, the film telling the story of the “Greatest Manhunt in History” is hitting the big screen. This is Zero Dark Thirty, the product of acclaimed director Katherine Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal. In the midst of rumors about a future rich in awards, ZDT became swallowed up in critical and even political scrutiny; it wasn’t expected to be a blockbuster when other big pictures were being released. Rumors of a conflict of interest swelled as the story began to circulate that it would be a campaign ad for a presidential administration seeking reelection. But upon release in 2013, the film graduated to even bigger controversy.
Its notoriety exploded with the depiction of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” or what the media calls “torture.” From the outset, the CIA personnel in the film’s cast are working captured Al-Qaeda associates in “black sites” all over the world. Hidden from the world, they are roughed up, sleep deprived, and water boarded while the agency works its way towards finding Bin Laden himself. The portrayal of the program drew outrage, but Bigelow certainly hasn’t filmed an apology for torture. Instead, the viewer rides an emotional roller coaster that runs from the devastation of 9/11 to the desperation that followed. There was more honesty in the presentation than some would like to admit. In fact, Zero Dark Thirty is a film that gives Hollywood’s best effort yet at the War on Terror.
The cast lent excellent support to the cause. Jessica Chastain gave a highly-charged performance as CIA agent Maya. She was focused yet intense, and is quite deserving of the awards talk going around. She has support in Jason Clarke, who plays the CIA operative Dan, who does all the dirty work, and in some ways is the more interesting character. Rounded out by Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, and Jennifer Ehle, the cast makes a believable ensemble without any brand-name stars. But there was some underused talent as well. In particular, Christopher Stanley as Admiral McRaven- never credited as the man responsible for the training, planning, and execution of the whole operation- could have commanded a little more screen time.
The amount of screen time given to Maya, a conglomeration of real-life figures, led to the criticism that Bigelow was creating an idealized female lead. ZDT certainly does buck stereotypical views of the agency, but some of those moments edge towards fiction. In a statement to agency employees, acting CIA director Michael Morrell noted, “[the] filmmakers attributed the actions of our entire agency—and the broader Intelligence Community—to just a few individuals. This may make for more compelling entertainment, but it does not reflect the facts. The success of the May 1st, 2011 operation was a team effort—and a very large team at that.”
That team’s world, large or small, became the focus of Zero Dark Thirty’s simmering story. Across the board, the settings and the cinematography were great. From Pakistan to Poland, and from Afghanistan to agency headquarters, everything looked right. There were some concerns from real-life operators that the portrayal of the SEAL team was somewhat inaccurate, and the concerns are well-founded. As director, Bigelow is also responsible for The Hurt Locker, a film which was generally lambasted as a compilation of errors and serious exaggerations about what happens out there. Here, the action was scaled back to give us a clearer representation of what went on. But although it held up well for the vast majority of its 157 minutes, there was still something big missing. In fact, there were several parts of the film’s progression that were handled rather poorly.
Almost like a good monster movie, Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t reveal Bin Laden’s presence for much of the film. But the moments that move us closer and closer to Abbottabad could have been treated with greater magnitude. Even after the successful completion of the fateful mission, the film chooses to end with Maya’s exit from the theater. While it closes out her decade working for the Agency, it sorely misses the final act where Bin Laden’s body was buried at sea. But there was one critical mistake in ZDT. From the beginning until the very end, we never see the face of the enemy. Not even during the famous SEAL raid itself, handled with all the appropriate drama, do we see his visage. Ultimately, the lack of that iconic image leaves a powerful film without a payoff.
Most of the time, real-world operations are not conducted with the silver screen in mind. The search for Bin Laden encompassed so much time and territory, so many people, leads, and dead ends, that it would be impossible to collapse it all into two hours. For the most part, ZDT beat expectations and delivered on its premise. There are times when it’s uncomfortable, and there are times when it is brutal. But that’s the way the War on Terror worked. It’s a film that has its share of fiction, but despite the drawbacks, Zero Dark Thirty is probably the best look the movie-going public will ever get into Operation Neptune Spear.
By JOSH MARCINIK ’14