Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Review

All seems calm from inside the eye of the hurricane. That is analogous to life in the domestic United States. Inside, we have our economy to worry about, and what’s on TV, and what movies are good to bring a date to. To the countries outside our own, the United States is terrifying. We have bases on every continent, in most major countries, we have a say in every global initiative. All politics aside, talks of sequestration are relativistic, for our military is on a scale that outmatches our allies and dwarfs our enemies. If you believe Bill O’Reilly, we use this great power for good; if you believe Noam Chomsky, our intentions are not so good. But lest I roam too far afield in a 900 word film review, let us agree that the United States is a scary enemy to make.

Katheryn Bigelow, with Zero Dark Thirty, offers a no-nonsense depiction of the events leading to the termination of Osama bin Laden, America’s number one bad guy for the new millennium.

We begin in darkness, with the sounds of frantic 9-1-1 calls made on September 11th. It is immediately effective, as it conjures all of the hurt and fear stirred on that day. It is a time capsule, for reviewing the movie now, in 2013, I am reminded how long ago that day has become, and how the coming decades will remove it further from our collective memory. The deaths of 3,000 civilians in New York was a catastrophic blow to the United States, not only for the mortal toll but the sheer audacity of it, almost unprecedented.

Zero Dark Thirty strips away the Iraq War, it strips away Afghanistan’s continuing bleed on the economy and our understanding of what we can accomplish there, it strips off Al-Qaeda’s organization in the main and the Taliban. What we are left with is a manhunt, plain and simple, for Osama bin Laden. We follow young Maya (Jessica Chastain), recruited to the CIA out of high school, on her singular pursuit. Twelve years spent chasing UBL. And how do we get to him?

Anyone who says this movie glorifies torture is barking up their own buttocks. That was the main charge leveled against the movie after its release. This competes with Quentin Tarantino’s use of the word “nigger” in his southern-western Django Unchained as one of the more outrageous offenses to our common sense in 2012. No, I don’t like the word anymore than you do but if one is doing a movie about slavery, I’m sorry folks but the N-WORD is part and parcel of the subject. Same deal with torture in America’s War on Terror. The US has subverted Geneva Conventions and tortured detainees, that’s the facts. How we square that with our national philosophy of truth and justice is not this movie’s call to make. Information was obtained via torture and Maya is there to watch it spill out of half-naked men on bloody concrete.

If you don’t like that, you don’t have to watch the movie. It’s certainly not happening to you.

Even with its vast wealth and resources, finding 20 people, sometimes no more than names on a CIA bulletin board, is a tall order for the United States. Maya is going for the man at the top of the board, starting two years after 9/11 and proceeding to that innocuous May day in 2011. What truly needs to be said for the film is how potently it complements what is said and done onscreen with what it does offscreen. Bigelow is a consummate director, directing not only fine performances and subtly oppressive tension but also a narrative of exhausting danger. The danger to Maya grows the more embedded she becomes in the search for bin Laden, but it is the danger to everyone that the film radiates forth from its explosions, its dead ends. Everyone on the other side of the screen, you and me, America, Pakistan, the Middle East, London, the world.

Zero Dark Thirty does not attempt to explain the hatred that seethes at us from the other side of the Atlantic, but it is palpable. And meanwhile, what do we become in our search for it? Burnt out and desperate. Jessica Chastain carries this film on her shoulders, her face an emotional instrument. When the compound in Pakistan is found, she needs to believe that UBL is inside. Yes, she’s done the time, she’s done the work, but she does not know. History proves her right, but only in retrospect.

The death of Osama bin Laden is the story’s end, but that is not why we watch this film. Those of us living in these times know that he is dead. And though the film ends with him in a body bag, the world that Maya inhabits – our world – is no safer. The dead, the tortured, the conflict, they haunt the killers, the torturers, and the warriors.

Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece for its time. It is much more than its research and its gut-wrenching atmosphere. Zero Dark Thirty is how we proceed in the business of searching and destroying; it is how we keep America and the world safe; it is how the men and women in the hurricane do their jobs. And it is a painful, hurtful process.

“For God and country. Geronimo.”

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Directed by Katheryn Bigelow
Columbia Pictures
157 Minutes

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