Struck one movie from my list of Films To See – I’ve yet to see Argo or Lincoln, among others that I’m interested in – and since I could only knock off one, I made it a good one. Or at least the one I most wanted to see.
Zero Dark Thirty will probably be with me for a while, which is one way to acknowledge its high caliber (pardon the pun). The film itself is as spectrally haunting as bin Laden himself became. Its monster-under-the-bed quality reverberates with each ear-shattering explosion, each thump of helicopter rotors, each shrill and piercing roar as Jason Clarke, as CIA operative Dan, interrogates a detainee, “When was the last time you saw bin Laden?!” It sends a chill up your spine, and to be honest it is these words that have been echoing in my head more than anything else. All of these effects are powered by the impact of UBL – as he is referred to in the movie – himself, and what was accomplished in taking him down.
The movie is kept as viscerally real as it can be, from the general point of view of the footmen, the guys on the ground, the CIA operatives and low-level analysts and tacticians and soldiers, all of whose assignments are a lot less James Bond and a lot more pounding the pavement – realism being the backbone of the movie and something I give it much credit for. It is on these backs that we depend, for a wide variety of things not limited to terrorist-killing, and the movie doesn’t let us forget it. It turns out though that the most dogged of these footmen, the most persistent, insistent, and focused, is a footwoman. Jessica Chastain’s razor-sharp character Maya is fascinating to watch; she embodies determination – maybe obsessive determination – and hers is the relatable voice of frustration when she hits a brick wall in her pursuit, stymied by the enemy or time or her own organization. We want her to follow her fly-by-night lead as much as she does, simply by virtue of how much she believes it is the right one. She is utterly authentic, simultaneously the consumate professional and the inspired maverick. And we believe it with every step, every interrogation, every grainy satellite image, each shell casing that tinkles onto the ground like rain.
I can’t say why anyone would have had any reasonable concern about this movie unfairly swaying popular opinion in Obama’s favor if it had been released before the election (which was a concern of some, ultimately causing the release to be pushed back from October 15 to December). If there’s one criticism I have of the film, it’s that it gives virtually no coverage to any of the high-level discussions that took place in the decision to green-light the raid. As I mentioned, it focuses entirely on the man-on-the-ground, the operatives and soldiers doing the grunt work, and that is commendable. But at least something should have been mentioned about the excruciating decisions being made at the top levels, and the risks taken in going ahead with the raid. As it stands, nothing is.
Much is being made of Jessica Chastain’s performance in the movie as CIA operative Maya – Oscar buzz, I believe, which this film barely squeaked in at the last minute to qualify for – and she deserves every bit of praise, but I think due credit should also be given to Jason Clarke, as the savvy, tough CIA veteran Dan, who embodies the adage “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” as he waterboards detainees for the first twenty minutes. He is the professional, pragmatic one to Maya’s long-shot; to Dan, it is just the shortest distance between two points, a means to an end.
Speaking of which, much is also being made of the torture scenes in the movie. The debate seems to be over whether or not they are a) in good taste, and b) completely necessary in the chain of events that leads to bin Laden’s demise. I never got the impression from the movie that torture was a constant or irreplaceable tool in the operative’s kit bag – those involved all go about their duty with an air of one resigned to a necessary evil for the greater good, and certainly never revel in it, or even make it the focus of the scene – and as far as good taste goes, it was the least gory, prolonged, or gratuitous instance of torture I’ve seen from a Hollywood movie in quite some time. There was none of the appalling sadistic glee you get from any number of action movies these days, and unlike those movies, the scenes of torture in ZDT were crucial to the plot (crucial to the movie’s storyline, that is, not necessarily to the series of events undertaken by the real CIA). Though I can’t quite call it benign, it is a far cry from the scenes of torture any action movie fan is used to seeing. It is mild in comparison. I can’t speak to the use or torture as a real-life tactic in the realm of war, but it was used completely appropriately in this movie.
The discomfort here I think comes from a general reluctance amongst normal people to wholeheartedly or enthusiastically support any spectacle that involves torture. It triggers an ingrained moral tripwire, and some people’s knee-jerk reaction is to question the virtues of those involved. We ask if it was really necessary, because what we really want to do is cheer. We all want to be completely and unequivocally happy that such an evil man as bin Laden is dead, and revel in the bravery and perseverance that brought him down. Torture is a fly in the ointment, and we can’t feel content in our revelry without acknowledging it – and questioning it is how we do that.
There is definitely a certain level of class and good taste to this movie. The story is told in broad, powerful strokes, but the meaning of it, the import and impact, the effect on people and the effect on the country, is in the details. The question of what UBL’s death means, its import on all those levels, is handled delicately and portrayed sensitively. The film is a composite time-lapse picture of a decade-long manhunt, and it’s the little pieces that we notice and experience the story through. It makes for a rich, full moviegoing experience, and an integrated, content-heavy method of storytelling not often found outside of the novel form.
One well-handled sequence in particular – and I suppose I should warn that this could be considered a spoiler, even though we already know how it ends – is the final portion of the raid when bin Laden is shot in his bedroom. His face is never fully shown, neither alive and whole and in terror right before he is shot, or right after when it would be badly distorted and mangled with big chunks missing (according to the three-plus accounts I’ve read of the raid, bin Laden was shot through the right eye, and again somewhere else on his head). Showing his face in either of these instances could be a way of gloating, or bragging about having killed him, but like the SEALs in both the movie and in real life, the film’s director and producers handle the kill with complete professionalism, never lingering on it or making it out to be more than another terrorist eliminated. No one celebrates, the boy’s club of the SEALs doesn’t even joke. One SEAL, who appeared to be in charge, relayed the kill, and designated the moment, by saying into his radio, “For God and country, Geronimo [UBL’s code name] is KIA.” And a pall settles over the room as the SEALs go about their work of collecting the body and other evidence. Anything more would have been unseemly and in bad taste, so I thought this was done exactly right.
I definitely recommend Zero Dark Thirty. Even if you can’t stomach the torture parts, it’s hard not to feel good about America, as a whole, finally getting this one thing right, and to feel good about the deserved credit going to each person in the chain of command that got this done, from the SEALs to the analysts to the intelligence community’s leaders to the commander-in-chief. Unless you’re a member of al Queda, you’ll want to cheer.