It took a long time to get him. Ten years is a very long time. “Zero Dark Thirty” tells a "truth-based" story of a person who stayed on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden all down the years of the “War on Terror,” a young CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain).
After 9/11 I suppose it was possible for an idealistic young person to aspire to join the CIA. Lefties of my generation, we pretty much associate the CIA with drug-running and even less savory activities.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by the journalist Mark Shoals, this is the new picture from the team that brought us that pulse-pounder, “The Hurt Locker.” The narrative hangs a thread between September 11, 2001, represented powerfully by a dark screen and voices of people who died, and the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011, played out in a bravura sequence of sight and sound and cutting.
I last saw Chastain moving through a very different movie experience, Terrence Malick’s numinous “The Tree of Life.” There she played an embodiment of feminine warmth. As the ginger Maya, she is a curious mix of feminine and flinty, soft and steely, cool-headed and fiery. The story of a driven woman making it in a testosterone-soaked culture must surely have personal resonance for Bigelow. That the point of view of “Zero Dark Thirty” is female is crucial.
Maya is always surrounded by burly men who invariably refer to her as a “girl.” (I’m not quite sure how old Maya is meant to be in the film, although we learn that she was recruited right out of high school. Jessica Chastain is in her mid-30s, though I would have pegged her as a decade younger.) At one point Maya refers to herself as a “motherfucker,” just to shake the guys up, including James Gandolfini as a Leon Panetta stand-in. She butts heads with her superiors, including Kyle Chandler as the eventually-outed head of CIA operations in Islamabad. (As an aside, Chandler struck both Karolyn and me as a dead ringer for Karolyn’s brother, Mike.)
But Chastain is essentially playing a cipher. We’re kept at a certain distance from Maya. Similarly, while “Zero” is an absorbing suspense film, there’s something about its tone, its surfaces, that is cool. The pace is methodical, which seems right for what is basically a procedural.
Of course the controversy raging over the film is, does it endorse torture or expose it? The truth, I think, lies somewhere in between. In the scene where a detainee (Reda Kateb) is waterboarded, Maya is our surrogate. We can see by her expression that she shares our revulsion. Still, she does not voice any concerns.
Some of the film’s critics on the left seem to be upset at it for accurately portraying the way certain U.S. operatives thought. I mean, I agree that it's laughable to be indignant that the unlucky souls languishing in the depths of Guantanamo are “lawyering up,” as one official sardonically remarks. Still, this is probably an accurate representation of their contempt for the very idea that detainees should have rights.
Much was done in the name of the “War on Terror” that was vile, including right up to this day with the drone strikes. That's the whole point, Bigelow might say. And yet as played by Jason Clark, the “interrogator” (torturer) is a “bro” who might have wandered over from a Judd Apatow movie. And the movie stacks the deck by removing any doubt of the detainee’s guilt. (He turns out to be a link to the courier (Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti) who would eventually lead the U.S. to Bin Laden’s doorstep.)
That said, the fact is Bigelow’s pictures are pretty apolitical. Or else they’re political only in the sense that they render a life-or-death situation with as much immediacy as possible. They put you in the shoes of the people on the ground, for whom it’s not about politics so much as it is about surviving until the next day.
And she’s trying to make the movie work as an entertainment, first and foremost. In fact, that fact might just be the nub of the problem her critics have with her.
So the film puts us in a van circling the chaotic streets of Pakistan, trying to pick up the signal of that fateful courier. We feel an adrenaline surge when our van is blocked by armed men. Likewise in a scene where Maya’s friend (Jennifer Ehle), a fellow agent far too eager, after so many failed leads, to believe in her new contact, waits for him to appear for their rendezvous at a military compound in Afghanistan. So glad is she when that he finally shows that she impatiently radios security to wave him through. As his car wends its way through the maze of concrete security walls, getting closer and closer, we become increasingly sure that something is not right. Bigelow is a brilliant suspense director. She knows how to use waiting to build suspense: tension and release.
Then there is that bravura final sequence. After we’ve seen it, we’ve been along on the raid. We’ve been in that helicopter with the Navy SEAL Team 6 on that night flight into Abbottabad. (Joel Edgerton plays the squadron leader.) She uses all the tricks of cinema to put us in their shoes: night-vision goggles, a hushed nighttime soundscape broken by boots scuffling on the ground.
To Bigelow’s eternal credit, the shooting of Bin Laden is not played for cheers. In fact, at no point is there anything triumphant about “Zero Dark Thirty.” In fact, what I remember most about the raid is the scared children.
The ending reminded me of nothing so much as “Straw Dogs,” another film that was controversial for its violence. Sitting alone in the bay of a jet, the pilot asks Maya where she wants to go next? She does not reply. Like the “hero” of the Peckinpah picture, it’s as if she does not know where she could possibly go from here. A tear slides down her cheek. Was it all worth it? In that moment the distance is broken.
--January 27, 2013
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)