(An edited version of this appeared in WTF magazine)
Zero Dark Thirty starts earnest enough with more sounds and little sights of 9/11 and its aftermath. The search for perpetrators of widespread terrorism started then and specifically the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, that this film primarily deals with. The rest of the film may not come across as impassioned and is mostly a mechanical depiction of the detainee program and the clues that led the US to Osama Bin Laden. That’s where the film enters documentary territory and its mess of moral problems.
Jessica Chastain plays the role of a CIA officer, part of the investigations in Pakistan. The veracity of such a character (in the real investigations behind Osama Bin Laden search) is in question and her name probably alludes to that – Maya. Maya is first shown mildly flinching when her colleague Dan interrogates a detainee, Ammar in ways that were then described as enhanced interrogation techniques. This is probably the slightest of remorse shown to be felt by anyone on the US side of affairs in the whole film. Maya comes to terms with it, albeit unconvincingly and quickly to hold her own interrogations once Dan leaves the scene. It doesn’t help that we jump between timelines and are never sure what year it is. There is little in terms of any introspection the characters go through in effect of this beyond stressful actions on their part. It is always fine to give only one side of the story. Steven Spielberg’s Munich did exactly that, showing us the Mossad side of events but it wasn’t one-dimensional like Zero Dark Thirty. It delved into the effects of the agents’ actions, their fear and how it impacts personal lives. We don’t see any of it and maybe it is intentional and essential since a story spanning a decade is condensed within 2-3 hours but the results aren’t all that great.
The film may do a bit of US chest beating but it tries to be as less dramatic about it as possible. That’s one of the good things. We never see an Obama on the screen (except for single news footage on tv). Nor are we shown Osama Bin Laden clearly before his death or after. It’s all kept vague so as to suggest the real and more authentic representation of events can never be filmed. The final 20 minutes or so are breathtaking with the Navy SEALs clinically going about their business of storming the household in search of Bin Laden. Here is where Kathreyn Bigelow establishes she works better on the field with the army men, bringing those deft touches that she showed throughout The Hurt Locker in building up the adrenaline. In contrast is the ridiculously staged sequence where Maya’s colleague is looking forward to an Al-Qaeda informant in Camp Chapman. The scene is predictable from the beginning but it also tries too hard to be and too long drawn out to make any real impact.
Zero Dark Thirty’s flagship is the final shootout. In its attempt to showcase that, the film gives a halfhearted account of the entire investigation leaving a lot of moral questions in its wake. If not for its political nature and events affecting the entire world, lending it an automatic credibility, this wouldn’t have made it to the Academy nominations in any form.