In a completely different vein from most high octane takes on the CIA and US foreign affairs, Zero Dark Thirty is a painfully honest appraisal of the kind and quality of work that occurs oversees by clandestine agents. Leave your Five-Seven pistol in the sock drawer and forget about the secret components to Yuri’s doomsday device, most of the time spent in Kathryn Bigelow’s somber feature is devoted to collating data. And at two and half hours of running time, there is a lot of data to collate. Despite the focus, Bigelow has built an interesting story out of her contacts and information on the real CIA that suggests just how big of a quagmire it is to acquire actionable intelligence. At one point, Jessica Chastain as Maya insists that a piece of information they have must be important because a couple of detainees are giving conflicting information, presumably lying. Maya’s pursuit of these kinds of leads is covered over several years, although the movie doesn’t really pay much attention to the world outside Afghanistan and Pakistan. The sole nod to the changing world is the fallout from the approved use of torture by the CIA. The rest of the film is locked in on the lines Maya traces to find Osama.
I won’t really discuss the path that’s traced, since seeing how luck and low fi tradecraft lead to finding Osama is the main pleasure of the movie. Chastain handles the role well here and the story is constructed with enough variety and surprises that it rarely gets boring. When things do start to muddle, Bigelow pulls a trick from Hurt Locker and blows something up. This all builds rather nicely to a climax which portrays the actual events of the Osama raid and nicely vindicates what went on before it. To spill a little more ink on the denouement, the raid is exciting and different from any action set piece you’ve ever seen before. There’s calm, organization, and vulnerability, all of which are rare traits during a movie gun battle. Doubtlessly the true to life portrayal of the events that occurred during the raid further enhance Zero Dark Thirty’s verisimilitude. But what are we left with after “well this is probably what it looked like when this happened?”
Zero Dark Thirty has a few things to say about what you’re seeing but in the end it’s mostly interested in a plausible narrative, which prevents it from rising to the heights its thematic material could achieve. For instance, upon release the film took some flak for its portrayal of torture. But really the events of the film don’t weigh in on that discussion. We’re not given enough information. It is definitely shown to be awful but it also starts the ball rolling on the whole investigation. It is presented as an uncertain proposition, but I think we already knew that. This isn’t to say that I wanted Zero Dark Thirty to tell me what was correct, but after spending its first twenty minutes on it they go almost mute on the matter. It seems almost deliberately neutral.
This extends to the films feelings on its protagonist Maya. The film’s coda makes it starkly obvious we know absolutely nothing about her outside of work. We’re not really invited to empathize with her, she doesn’t carry a chip on her shoulder and her grief is perfunctory movie grief. The most important leaps of the chase for Osama aren’t really even due to her. Occasionally her commitment came across as shrill and unreasonable. But in the end her commitment is what pushed the dominos over on finding the most wanted man of the decade. Maya ends of being right but there’s no champagne, just a body in a bag. The film’s neutrality and unwillingness to canonize Maya seem to be saying that the type of job being done by the CIA is murky and uncertain both in effectiveness and political results, but it’s the only way to accomplish the nearly impossible objectives of counter terrorism. It does get results, but not cleanly and only after great effort. As I mentioned before, I feel this is just the starting point for the discussion. Zero Dark Thirty is fascinatingly professional, but is not opinionated or personal which diminishes the conversation between the film and the reviewer. The enjoyment found here is in the technical nature of watching how a deliberate committed organization tries to grapple with a chaotic world.