I remember walking past the TV monitor in our canteen at work on 2nd May 2011 watching President Obama, thinking “That’s odd – looks like something important has happened”.
The TV was on mute – scrolling along the bottom of the screen, I saw – “U.S. Special Forces have killed Osama Bin Laden”
Surreal – after all those years, for this to finally happen.
I shared the feeling of just vindication with most Americans and was pretty pumped for the release of “Zero Dark Thirty” the dramatisation of the long hunt for Bin Laden and the raid that led to his execution.
Before I describe what I felt about the film, much has been made of Zero Dark Thirty implying that the use of torture is a legitimate technique and that all of the valuable pieces of evidence leading to the raid on Bin Laden’s compound came from torture-induced evidence.
The film didn’t strike me this way. The breakthroughs portrayed mainly came via nuance, deception and tradecraft. I think this is an anti-torture film. (As if that should be a genre now)
Bigelow and Boal have previously collaborated on “The Hurt Locker” which was based on Boal’s experience in Iraq when he was embedded with a bomb squad in 2004.
The story of the greatest manhunt in history is told from the perspective of Maya, a young CIA agent who is posted to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan. Being young, attractive, red-headed and female in Pakistan brings its own background level of tension and hidden threat.
Maya (Jessica Chastain) is taken under the wing of Dan (Jason Clarke) who leads the interrogation of terrorist suspects at a nearby CIA “Blacksite”. They are looking both for connections to Osama Bin Laden and also are trying to track down post 9/11 threats from active terrorist cells. Maya’s task and obsession is with Bin Laden.
The initial suspect Dan and Maya interrogate is Ammar (Reda Kateb) who has links, they believe, to Saudi terror cells. The interrogation, torture and break-down of the Ammar is hard to watch – Maya’s re-action to the torture, mirrors our own – she finds it hard to stomach, but over-time she becomes acclimatised and somewhat colder. (The most compelling shot from the film is Ammar’s face. You won’t find this on Google images.)
Maya also displays a highly developed sense of tactics, eventually employing a mix of force, encouragement and deception to get what she wants.
But Maya’s gradual and painstaking success with her interviews, deductions and other intelligence gathering is not celebrated by most of her colleagues – and especially not Islamabad C.I.A. Station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler). Bradley dismisses the importance and veracity of Maya’s conclusions time and again, leading to some heated confrontations and threats on both sides.
Maya is somewhat distant from her fellow-spies – although she strikes up a friendship and degree of trust with another more experienced female C.I.A. Operative Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). While Jessica and Maya clash on ideas and interpretation of evidence they both what the same outcome.
Bradley is reflecting the priorities and consensus in Washington where the C.I.A. is far more concerned with thwarting additional attacks, and hitting any high-profile target with drones. The guy responsible for getting sign-off on strikes and assassinations, George (Mark Strong), is sent from Washington to berate the entire Islamabad C.I.A. Station. At the conclusion of his diatribe to the cowed staff he says “… do your fucking jobs and bring me people to kill!”
While Bin Laden is somewhat of a galvanising figure for Jihadists his personal influence and involvement in these attacks is seen as marginal by Washington.
So the hunt for him has taken on the status of a failed side-show, and Maya’s single-minded focus on Bin Laden is making her a nuisance, not to mention a drain on resources and distraction from the “bring me people to kill” KPI that her station chief has just had rammed down his throat.
As the film progresses more attacks take place around the world. The Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, The Saudi Oil installation, The London Bombings, and the attack on Camp Chapman in Afghanistan.
Through some painstaking research and uncovering of some errors that had held them back for years Maya gets a fresh lead on Abu Ahmed and with Dan’s assistance is able to get access to Ahmed’s mother’s phone line. Eventually identifying Ahmed through a series of surveillance exercises in markets – trying to triangulate where he is and identify him.
Once Ahmed is identified he leads them to the intriguing compound in Abbottabad where it was finally revealed that OBL had successfully hidden away for so many years. Within shouting distance of Pakistan’s own military academy, no less.
There is a shift in the film now back to Washington and the struggle to get the hierarchy really interested in doing something about the unknown inhabitants of the compound. Maya and her allies (notably George) wear everyone down after about 4 months and a raid is ordered.
The raid led by U.S. Navy Seals is as covert as it gets using special helicopters and the cover of darkness. This is incredibly tense as one helicopter crashes and the surrounding neighbors are alerted. The Seals hunt from room to room, finally finding and killing Bin Laden whilst they learn that Pakistan has scrambled its airforce to investigate. The Seals make a hasty exit with the body of Bin Laden and as many files and computer disks as they can carry.
Back at the U.S. Base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan Maya confirms the identity of Bin Laden.
There is no cheering, no Hollywood-esque room full of onlookers clapping the result and hugging each other. No catharsis.
The film ends on a thoughtful “now what?” note.
As many critics have already pointed out, this is a two and half hour movie where everybody already knows the ending.
The triumph of Zero Dark Thirty is to maintain alternating levels of fascination, dread and awe for the entire duration.
This is not so much a story about America, 9/11 and terrorism in the macro sense. It is more a story about a young woman’s struggle to do her part in “the war on terror” in her way and with her priorities. Contrasted against the careerism and fear that is rife in Washington. Its about not giving up.
Maya embodies the strength of conviction behind George Bush’s quote “We will not waver; we will not tire; we will not falter, and we will not fail. Peace and Freedom will prevail.” She kept the faith and is in Australian terms a “true believer”. The irony is it took a Democrat administration to execute.
Probably the most telling part in the film for me came when Maya looks at the Navy Seals relaxing before they go on their mission. Without words she realises that they are going into harm’s way on her account, on her intelligence and, after a long struggle, at her insistence. A flicker of doubt crosses her face.
There is really nothing I can add to the chorus of praise for the script, the acting, the pacing and the film-making. Totally immersive and somewhat unique stuff for two and a half hours. A small quibble – I would like to have seen more about the Pakistani ISI involvement, and any of the behind the scenes thinking regarding the decision not to involve Pakistan’s military in the raid. I think we all know why. Just would have liked to see this addressed in the film.
9 out of 10