“The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden….It is our No. 1 priority and we will not rest until we find him.”
- George W. Bush - 9/13/01
“…We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaida. That has to be our biggest national security priority.”
- Barack Obama - 10/8/08
It was that accursed white whale that razed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!... I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! To chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.
- Herman Melville - Moby Dick
2012 is littered with the refuse of my own disenchantment with cinema. I was waiting and waiting for a savior that never seemed to come. There were a few films that were great, but nothing that seemed incredibly earth shattering. Then there was Zero Dark Thirty. It might be a perfect movie. I think it was about 80 minutes into the film, when Jessica Chastain as CIA agent Maya is yelling at her superior, expletives flying, that I finally felt I was seeing something with real meat to it. The fact that the film has obtained a good deal of controversy perhaps points to the fact that it feels so realistic, that it is so well-made, that it is being taken as "the truth". Whether Bigelow embellishes certain aspects of the story or not isn't really as important to me as how good the film is and Bigelow has in fact made quite a film.
Bigelow’s film follows the 10-year manhunt of Osama bin Laden by the United States. Mark Boal’s excellent script zooms in on a CIA operative named Maya (whose story is purportedly based on a real individual), who in the first scenes of the movie, we see her viewing the torture and interrogation of a detainee at an undisclosed location. Her early years on the case researching detainees and interrogations allows her to find a lead to a purported courier of bin Laden’s. Maya’s dogged determination throughout the years to support her idea and to find and kill bin Laden are what we follow, and like all great procedural films (All the President’s Men, The Insider), there is a great deal of suspense. Yet there’s also a noted dose of humanism here as well. Maya’s determination, leadership, and near obsessive sense of purpose create intense human drama.
Jessica Chastain is ruthless AND human in a performance that indicates she is quickly becoming one of the best and most versatile actresses around. She seems to know exactly how much to emphasize in a certain scene….never laying it on too thick, always striving for believability and genuineness. I find Chastain’s Maya is an existential woman on a mission. She IS her job and we see her do but little else. Even when interacting with others, it's usually through work. It's amazing in fact, how often Maya is framed alone on-screen. She's a lone wolf. Her determination to pursue her prey is tested on numerous occasions though: when her friend is blown up in a suicide bombing; when she is nearly blown up at the Marriott Hotel bombing; when she is shot at in her car. Yet she pushes on and we understand her sense of urgency, her pain at the loss of friends and colleagues…..it’s all there on her face. Her character development is interesting as we watch her disgust early on as she looks on during scenes of torture, but soon enough when she conducts her own interrogations, she is asking a fellow interrogator to smack someone on the face. Her learning curve is a short one in this film, but her story of near maniacal zeal is what gives the film its drive. Mark Boal deserves some fine credit for his script here, allowing for moments of feeling and fiery emotion in the midst of the procedures. But Bigelow’s sense for pacing is just as spectacular and one of the film’s greatest assets. Though the film is 157 minutes long, there is genuine intrigue all throughout, building to the climactic raid on bin Laden’s compound, that is staged about as well as anyone could imagine it to be.
Although the scenes of torture have been getting attention from nearly everyone, I find there is an element to them that has strangely been getting little attention. The film clearly places the torture scenes early in the narrative within the era of the Bush administration. During the era of the Obama administration, we are not shown any further scenes of torture. In a conflicting portion of the back story of this film, is something called the Military-Entertainment Complex. This term (which I'd never heard of before) refers to the little discussed practice of the exchange of capital and information between branches of our Military and Government factions and filmmakers. For example, Paramount Pictures was able to gain access to all the aircraft they needed at a steep discount to make Top Gun back in 1986…..but they had to submit the script to the military for approval and positioning. This amounts to near propaganda if you ask me, and it’s no wonder that most ordinary war films amount to nothing. Now the question becomes, did Bigelow in fact receive assistance from the military and the government? According to The Freedom of Information Act, it appears that she and screenwriter Boal DID make contact and received some information from the government, despite the fact that Chastain said last week on The Daily Show with John Stewart that they didn't receive help. In this clip she mentions not only this, but that Bigelow also thus avoided government intrusion by not working with them and that they apparently did not receive equipment from the military for the film.
If by chance Bigelow and Boal did happen to work closely with the government (as seems to be documented), and if we presume the government was then able to review the script, why would they approve of a film that puts the CIA and our country’s practices in a bad light? That gets back to the Republican/Democrat divide and differences in approach between the two administrations and how those means are portrayed in the timeline of the film. Of course if Bigelow did NOT have to submit her script for approval, it would stand to reason that the tone and placement of the torture scenes were her own idea. I feel much better about the intent of the filmmakers, knowing that the film came out after the election, not allowing it to be construed as propaganda for the election. Either way, I find it interesting that the torture scenes have received just about every interpretation imaginable, which would indicate to me that whoever had the most influence over those moments did not allow any particular agenda to come to the fore. They exist here in the film because they happened.
Bigelow’s and Boal’s narrative achieves additional depth and troubling moral implications as it takes us face-to-face with revenge, and this is where the film starts flirting with truly epic importance. It follows in the tradition of both literary and cinematic revenge stories, perhaps foremost... Moby Dick. Maya is the Ahab and bin Laden is the White Whale. In cinematic terms, she's a modern incarnation of John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, or Clint Eastwood as The Outlaw Josey Wales. But the masterstroke of the whole film, is that in portraying Maya as this type of protagonist, complete with her obsessive, single minded-goal, Bigelow is able to reflect and implicate the United States as a whole in the film. Maya is simply the micro level version of our country’s macro concerns in the years following 9/11. For many in our nation, including some of our leaders, killing bin Laden was some kind of holy grail. Parallels between ZDT’s real-world example and the narrative traditions that it recalls, adds layers to an already complex and far-reaching story, as the sometimes ugly nature of those fictional tales hits home here, but in an all-too-real fashion.
As a document of revenge and manhunt and the search for justice, Bigelow’s film is infinitely fascinating, and she rightfully avoids any sense of rah-rah enthusiasm. There’s also a melancholy fatalism to the whole thing. Punctuated throughout the plot are reminders of various terrorist attacks from the London bus-bombing, to the Marriott Hotel bombing in Pakistan. We’re reminded of WHY Maya is doing what she’s doing and why she feels it’s important, even if when the movie's over, there is a feeling of “now what?”. Zero Dark Thirty is also a fascinating document of craft, of the existential distillation of one woman’s determination for an end-goal and the process to reach it. The film is not without potential ideological pitfalls and moral implications, the likes of which may not fully be known yet. But the manhunt, and watching the woman get her man, makes for absolutely riveting and epic cinema.