There is hardly a more horrific example of mankind’s capacity for harming one another than the events of September 11, 2001. Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, the man primarily responsible for that defining moment in modern history – some may even argue the advent of ‘The War Against Terror’.
The film follows Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA officer who joined the agency straight after graduating high school. She has never worked on anything else; pursuing Bin Laden had been her life cause. She’s not one to hole up behind the desk; she’s willing to go far above and beyond in doing the dirty work, including interrogating captured terrorists.
Upon its release, the film suffered backlash for its perceived support of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e. torture) as a means of gathering intelligence from captured terrorists. Critics argue that the inclusion of these methods imply that Bin Laden would not have been found without it.
However, the identity of Bin Laden’s most trusted courier – that eventually led to the big man himself – is revealed not through torture, but through a clever piece of bluffing. Throughout the second part of the film, actionable intelligence is gathered mostly through old-fashioned detective-style work. At one point, it even involves bribing an informant with a Lamborghini.
It would be folly not to include the interrogation scenes. Without them, the film would not have been even remotely accurate in its portrayal of the world we live in, as it speaks volumes of the lengths we are willing to go to defeat those who seek to destroy us. To not portray these scenes would mean turning a blind eye to one of the most defining struggles of our time.
The film doesn’t set out to approve or disapprove of torture; it simply shows us that it is a reality. It’s raw, it’s ugly and it’s painful. Yet, Zero allows us to decide for ourselves whether or not it is worth it. If anything, the fact that there has been an intense debate surrounding the film suggests it is doing the right thing. Including the interrogation scenes was a bold move by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal.
The CIA seems to be prominent in pop culture in the past year, popularised by the Emmy-winning show Homeland and the Academy Award Best Picture winner Argo. What sets Zero Dark Thirty apart is that it isn’t as bold in its glorification of intelligence work, yet still celebrates the efforts of the intelligence community. Intelligence work is shown as painstakingly slow and endlessly frustrating, with certainty being ever so elusive. To an extent, this is testament to the film’s journalistic aspirations; it seeks not just to entertain, but to also inform.
The downside of this is that the film demands the audience’s diligence and concentration. Names and jargon can be lost easily throughout the duration of the film, which runs for an imposing two and a half hours, and at times can be hard to penetrate. Despite this, the film successfully maintains a sense of drama and suspense and lives up to its thriller status, even though the conclusion of it is, to understate it, widely known.
Zero claims that it is based on firsthand accounts of actual events. Allegedly, there was a female CIA agent who was fixated on Abu Ahmed, providing the inspiration for the character of Maya. Praise should be given to Jessica Chastain – who is quickly becoming the Meryl Streep of her generation – for her near flawless performance as the main character. Bigelow and Boal seem to elevate Maya’s role to provide an extra layer of personal conflict, as a fierce female protagonist faced against a male-dominated establishment that doubts her judgement at almost every turn.
While The Hurt Locker deservedly put Bigelow on the map, Zero Dark Thirty should cement her position as America’s gutsiest contemporary filmmaker. The Hurt Locker is perfectly executed, but Zero is much more ambitious in its scope, and executed just as masterfully. Zero does not shy away from potential minefields, instead it runs toward them at full speed.
Zero Dark Thirty is much more than just a procedural, dramatised account of the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden. It’s also about the extent to which heaven and earth were moved to hunt him down. It not only portrays how he is found, but also what is lost to get him. It tells a story that needs to be told.