As cinematography, ZERO DARK THIRTY delivers the goods by way of sidestepping tropes and clichés. Right from the opening darkness in which we listen to an audio montage of assorted emergency phone calls and news bites on 9/11/01—in lieu of revisiting the all too familiar images of jets ramming the twin towers in New York City, smashing into the Pentagon, and crashing into a field as passengers overwhelm the hijackers—we know this is going to be an altogether different film experience. Whether or not it is an accurate history lesson is altogether secondary—it claims only to be based upon the real events.
The film spans ten years, lingering at specific events and moving on, some of which were reported in the news, while others were strictly clandestine. Several early semi-graphic scenes of a prisoner being tortured (mildly) for information are not nearly as disconcerting as they might have been. The debate concerning whether such tactics are moral is too ridiculous to address.
All of the actors are convincing in their roles, and there is so much left unsaid in their expressions and body language concerning their personal feelings to the various happenings that it is often easy to forget one is watching a film. Jessica Chastain as “Maya” is perfect as a straight from school CIA officer whose entire brief career consisted of compiling information on Osama Bin Laden. It is her conviction, often in the face of floundering born of the frustration of her superiors, which drives the action. She survives two al-Qaeda attacks herself and when her superior is killed in another her mission becomes personal.
Thankfully Presidents Bush and Obama are seen briefly and only once each during television new conferences. Neither does Bin Laden appear as a major player, save for the few moments it takes the Navy SEALS to locate and dispatch him.
The audience is exposed to the changing winds of public opinion and bureaucratic pressure which drive Maya’s all consuming need to find and kill Bin Laden. Other CIA faces come and go, but she remains on target. Her frustration is displayed in so many ways, from her angrily standing up to her superiors who want her to back off, to writing the number of days that have lapsed since the location of Bin Laden’s compound to the eventual operation to assassinate him in bold red numerals on her boss’s office window.
Appropriately the film ends on 5/2/11 shortly after the successful raid, much of which is shot in green “night vision” similar to the news clips depicting the event. The film makes no overt political statement nor does it engage the viewer to address the various issues the shifting political climate over that decade raised.
There is no bullshit romance to soften the story, no bravery in the face of impossible odds, no flag waving, no people behaving in unlikely ways. It is a straight forward story, believably told, of how a confessed name led to a face, led to a connection, led to the hunt for a courier, led to a fortified compound, led to the assassination of Bin Laden and the confiscation of his computers—all against the backdrop of mounting international al-Qaeda attacks. Whether or not all of the above really happened as portrayed, it’s a great film.
© Paul L. Bates 2013