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Zero Dark Thirty

Hunting Osama bin Laden

Jan. 15, 2013
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Kathryn Bigelow upset the odds in 2009 when her indie-scale, grunt-level look at the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker, knocked aside her ex-husband James Cameron’s 3D extravaganza, Avatar, at Oscar time. Although her latest, Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT), has been nominated for Best Picture, it’s unlikely to stop the Lincoln juggernaut. It is, however, a compelling dramatization of the greatest manhunt of our time, the search for Osama bin Laden. And it’s a rarity—a two-and-a-half-hour film that never feels too long.

While “fact based,” ZDT has generated controversy over which facts are included and which are left out. Its scenes of torture (aka “enhanced interrogation”) at CIA black sites imply that the ends of justice can (and should?) be served by cruel means. So despite the rush by many critics to praise the film, ZDT casts a disturbing shadow as it asks the eternal question: How should (or can?) we respond to evil.

The film begins with voices from 9/11 against a black screen—a brilliant reminder of the event’s horror without recourse to overused images of the World Trade Center’s meltdown—before cutting to a black site where other horrors are being done. Dan (Jason Clarke) is the CIA’s master interrogator. He appears to enjoy his work—at least inside the soundproof chamber where prisoners are kept. “I own you—you belong to me,” he taunts an Al Qaeda operative before hoisting him into the air on pulleys, knocking him to the floor, pouring gallons of water down his throat, fastening a collar to his neck and walking him like a dog. Maya (Jessica Chastain) watches almost impassively, standing in the corner, wan as a candle in a dark church, her calm ruffled occasionally by a sick feeling. Based on a real-life CIA agent, Maya becomes ZDT’s propulsive engine as qualms evaporate and nausea fades. In this telling, bin Laden is located almost entirely through her efforts.

“Come on, let’s get a coffee,” Dan says after completing a torture session. The horrible is made banal to cushion the psychological damage to the torturers. It’s an office job with blood on the floor, a far cry from the scholarly CIA analysts in old films such as Three Days of the Condor. And yet, analysis is the whole point. Maya watches videotaped interrogations of dozens of prisoners, a gruesome visual library from which she pieces together fragments of useful information from broken men. The objective is to find people who know people who know where bin Laden might be hiding, and ZDT nails the essential problem facing intelligence agencies in a world awash in data: The valuable clues are needles in a haystack of leads.

Along the way, Maya moves in stages from mildly shocked novice to America’s avenging angel, her resolve stiffened by an ongoing chain of Al Qaeda outrages around the world—a massacre in Saudi Arabia, the London mass-transit bombings, the detonation of the Islamabad Marriott Hotel (which nearly killed her) and the death of her CIA friends in the suicide bombing at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. Maya plays the relentless hero’s role, a role which Hollywood, until recently, reserved for men; she will remind many viewers of the fictional protagonist in “Homeland.”

shifts on its axis after Barack Obama’s declaration that “America does not torture.” The film seems to imply that progress toward catching bin Laden slows in light of policy changes, and yet Maya never stops sifting through data until she arrives at a plausible theory: A mysterious compound in Abbottabad, down the road from Pakistan’s Military Academy, is bin Laden’s lair. James Gandolfini plays CIA director Leon Panetta as a shrewd consigliore who weighed the odds and gave the go-ahead to the Navy SEALS.

The climactic raid that killed bin Laden occupies a small part of the film; ZDT is not a war movie or even, except in moments, a thriller. It’s more a detective story where the pursuers collect their clues by any means possible. Bigelow’s skill as a director keeps all eyes on the screen, even when we’d rather look the other way.


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