Zero Dark Thirty – 2012
I didn’t care for this movie, not because it was a bad movie, but because I just wasn’t interested in the subject matter. It was a historical drama documenting the ten year search for the international terrorist who engineered the attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001, Osama Bin Laden. The film, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, was very similar in feel to her other Best Picture Nominated film, The Hurt Locker, which won the top prize in 2008.
The movie was well-made, had some competent acting, and a definite point of view. But like The Hurt Locker, there was an air of self-indulgent self-importance about it that I didn’t like, and apparently a lot of historical inaccuracies. It promoted itself as a hard-hitting and definitively true story, but the number of historical falsehoods for the sake of dramatic tension damaged its credibility. To address this, Wikipedia did a good job of clearly defining what I was already thinking. “Former Assistant Secretary of Defense, Graham T. Allison, has opined that the film is inaccurate in three important regards: the overstatement of the positive role of enhanced interrogation methods, the understatement of the role of the Obama administration, and the portrayal of the efforts as being driven by one agent battling against the CIA ‘system.’”
The first part of the movie was glorified torture porn. It was graphic and unapologetic. But it was there to introduce the main character, Maya, played by Jessica Chastain. She is a CIA operative who is newly arrived in Pakistan. It is her job to track down and capture or kill Osama Bin Laden. I didn’t like the way the movie made it seem like it was just Maya and the tiny team she worked with who were the only ones looking for him. And as the movie progressed, everyone else either seemed to lose interest, lose hope of success, or were killed off in terrorist attacks, so that in the end, she was the only one left, obsessively continuing the search.
The movie came under a lot of criticism because it implied that Bin Laden was ultimately located based on the information obtained through torture, which is false. But the scenes were there to show how the beautiful and delicate-looking Maya was just as hard and un-squeamish about the practice of torture as the guys. They were also saying to the audience, “Look! This movie is going to show you gritty reality. We’re not going to shy away from the dark side of what the CIA really did to find the terrorist.” I get it, but it felt a little heavy-handed.
Maya had a few fellow CIA operatives, like Dan, Jessica, George, Joseph, Jack, Steve, ‘The Wolf’, Jeremy, Debbie, Larry, Hakim, and John. These various parts were played by some recognizable names like Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, James Gandolfini, and Harold Perrineau. But it was hard for me to keep track of any of the character names because their names were rarely used, except for Dan and Jessica, played by Jason Clarke and Jennifer Ehle. Dan was important because he did most of the torturing at the beginning, though I at least liked that the character left to go back to the states because the terrible job burned him out. And Jessica had the distinction of being Maya’s friend who gets killed in a terrorist bombing.
And then there was the film’s half-true climax. From the torture at the film’s beginning, information is gained and leads are followed. Unnamed characters would magically show up with just the information Maya needed to continue her investigation and then disappear, never to be seen on the screen again. This leads to almost randomly finding Osama Bin Laden’s courier and tailing him to a heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad.
The house is put under surveillance, even though there is absolutely no direct evidence that Bin Laden is there. But somehow Maya becomes convinced that he is. She fights with her superiors to get them to covertly raid the complex. She is so persuasive that the National Security Advisor, played by Stephen Dillane, assigns a team of Navy Seals to take two super-secret stealth helicopters and attack the complex. Among the team are two recognizable names, Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt as Patrick and Justin. But again, the actual names didn’t seem to matter. The mission is successful and, of course, Maya’s groundless beliefs prove to be true. Osama Bin Laden is killed and his body is taken by the team of Seals.
But in reality, they found Bin Laden because a Pakistani ISI, or Inter-Services Intelligence, walk-in gave him up for the $25 million reward, something which the White House has denied. But I guess that’s not as exciting or dramatic as torture and obsessive investigating. So I suppose that Zero Dark Thirty was good enough to watch once, but only once. Just don’t mistake it for a true depiction of real events. And just as a final interesting note, it is true that the film was criticized because the film opened with actual 9/11 victims voice recordings as a voice-over, but they were used without the family member’s knowledge or permission. You couldn’t just get some actors to do that? Not cool Bigelow! Not cool!