Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty, 4.5/5

Zero Dark Thirty starts, appropriately, with a caption – September 11, 2001. What follows is nothing more than a dark screen and the phone chatter of some of the poor souls lost that day. It’s all that’s needed to set the stakes.

The film picks back up in 2003 as we are introduced to Maya, a young CIA officer who has been assigned to track down Osama bin Laden. It’s from her perspective that we experience a methodical retelling of the near 10 year mission to find the al-Qaeda leader. And with a running time of around 2 hours and 45 minutes methodical is just about the only way to describe it. Told through the movie equivalent of chapter headings Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal lay out the hunt for bin Laden from the early intelligence on his courier to the discovery of his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

While most of the film’s key events are already part of the public record – you’d be hard pressed to find a person who doesn’t already know the ending – Bigelow and Boal provide such fascinating context to the events that lead up to the May 2, 2011 mission that killed the terrorist leader that the film has an undeniable momentum. What’s more, the writer/director team does a fantastic job of ensuring that everything is explained without it ever feeling like its being explained at all. In a movie designed to explain and elaborate you never feel like you’re simply getting information dumped on top of you.

Now usually this is the point in the review where I apologize profusely for not having read any of the source material (movies are better than books, everybody knows that), but in this case I’m actually fairly well versed in the subject. And I have to say, for the most part the film matches up quite well with the written accounts, especially in the often conflicting reports of the final raid on bin Laden’s compound. Zero Dark Thirty manages to sift through the noise and weave together one of the more comprehensive interpretations of that mission yet. If you haven’t already been enthralled just by the search to find the compound, I have a feeling the film’s closing sequence will be able to do a lot more than just grab your attention.

Now you may have noticed that I’ve mentioned little about the film’s main character Maya, played exceptionally by Jessica Chastain. She herself is a rather mysterious character. A force to be reckoned with certainly. Completely unafraid of authority. And brilliant on a whole other level. But she holds her cards close and you don’t feel like you get a true glimpse into her character until the films closing moments. Still, in the end Zero Dark Thirty is first and foremost about the search for bin Laden’s whereabouts and that search is bigger than any one character, which is exactly what makes Maya’s character so perfect. She is the search personified. It’s all she’s ever known and it consumes her. That also makes her very, very interesting.

Just quickly though, before I finish, I feel obligated to address some of the controversy over the depictions of torture in this movie (or enhanced interrogation if you want to get all 1984 about it). While I don’t necessarily think the film is promoting the use of torture – the brutality of some of the scenes hardly makes it feel like an endorsement – it does seem somewhat implied (which is not helped by Bigelow’s detached almost reporting like style) that intelligence discovered through the use of torture led at least in part to the killing of Osama bin Laden. The truth is far less cut and dry and I could probably go on for hours giving you the play by play of both sides of the argument. Frankly, it’s a debate worth having. But it has been for 10 years and a movie shouldn’t change that. All I’ll suggest is that you watch that particular portion of the film with a critical eye, and don’t just assume that everything being fed to you is fact.

Either way, from a pure film-making sense the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty perhaps may have cost the movie. It was nominated for Best Picture just this Thursday and in my mind, based on the films I’ve seen so far, it had the best chance of usurping Lincoln for the top prize. But given the fact that Kathryn Bigelow wasn’t given a Best Director nomination (she deserved one) it seems as though its chances of doing that have diminished (it’s rare for a winner to not also have its director nominated). Still, you’d be hard pressed to find a more fascinating look at one of the most captivating events in recent history. It makes that 2 hour and 45 minute running time feel like the blink of an eye.