On May 2, 2011, a team of CIA-backed Navy SEALs raided a small housing compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, under orders to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization and mastermind of the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001. Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the decade-long manhunt that ended in bin Laden’s death that evening. Unfortunately, despite a riveting depiction of the raid, the rest of the film leading up to it feels like enduring those same ten years.
Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal attempt to set these events in context. The film begins in darkness, literally and figuratively, as 9/11 audio recordings play over a black screen. Cut forward 2 years, as CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) arrives in the Middle East to join the intelligence team researching al-Qaeda. She’s relatively inexperienced, but her drive and determination are clear, even if they sometimes rub her teammates and superiors the wrong way.
Maya is assigned to Dan (Jason Clarke), who is currently interrogating a low-level al-Qaeda financier, and here, at the beginning of the film, is where the most controversial scenes occur. US Government officials have argued back and forth for some time about whether “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e. torture) were used during key al-Qaeda interrogations, and Zero Dark Thirty‘s claim that it’s based on “first-hand accounts of true events” has led many to ask who exactly Bigelow has been talking to.
Equally controversial in these scenes of waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other abuse is what Bigelow is trying to say about torture itself, if anything. None of the detainees actually give up information while being tortured, which makes a point about its ineffectiveness. But it also seems likely that the interrogators wouldn’t be able to trick one of them into giving up the name of bin Laden’s trusted courier without the mental exhaustion torture causes. The issue can easily be seen both ways, which is probably why there’s so much fuss being made about it.
At any rate, having secured the name of the courier, Maya and her team begin working what she believes is their best lead to bin Laden. Chastain is very effective as the film’s anchor: Maya’s clashes with her superiors, her tears at the loss of friends, and her rock-solid confidence in her intel are all worthy of the Oscar buzz Chastain’s performance is generating, if only because the Academy is full of patriots.
The problem is that everything else around her is flat as a pancake. Boal’s dialogue isn’t particularly compelling, and most of the actors merely okay, so very little connects, even in scenes meant to have high tension. The much-talked-about torture scenes don’t raise the pulse, either – years of similar tactics on TV’s 24 have beaten it out of us. On top of this, Bigelow has a habit of punctuating slower moments with explosions, or quick cuts to terrorist acts, which seem more like attempts to wake up the audience than portray the instability of life in the Middle East. At 150+ minutes running time, the movie could have been far more effective after a major trimming.
The final act, however, is legitimately exciting. According to reports, the real-life raid on bin Laden’s compound lasted about 40 minutes, start to finish, and Bigelow’s version presents it roughly in real time. She’s fully aware this is the part people most want to know about, and she makes sure all the military hardware and personality are on display. As a result, it’s also the part of the movie that feels the most authentic.
Given bin Laden’s crimes and their worldwide effects, Zero Dark Thirty tells an important story about the work to bring him to justice. It’s just too bad the story couldn’t be better told.
Tags: movie review