|(C) 2012 Columbia Pictures|
Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial 2012 thriller, is a riveting account of the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden and the May 1, 2011 raid that killed him. Because the outcome of SEAL Team Six’s mission is well-known, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a typical spy tale where the ending is kept under wraps. Instead, it’s a tribute to the intelligence agents and military personnel who spent a decade tracking Al Qaeda’s elusive leader.
Zero Dark Thirty is also a good example of what happens when a script begins to tell one story and, by twists of fate, ends up telling a different one. In the case of Zero Dark Thirty, screenwriter/producer Mark Boal was working on a script about bin Laden’s escape from U.S. and allied forces after the Battle of Tora Bora. Boal and Bigelow (who had collaborated on 2009’s The Hurt Locker) intended to make a movie about the CIA’s failure to find bin Laden. Boal was halfway done with this project when news came that the SEALs had raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and killed America’s Number One enemy.
Boal quickly shifted gears and rewrote his screenplay. The new script focused on a CIA analyst (Jessica Chastain) whose single-minded determination to find bin Laden led her and her CIA colleagues on a frustrating decade-long hunt. Known under the pseudonym “Maya,” this still-active covert operative follows a series of clues that she believes will reveal bin Laden’s network of couriers. Find the couriers that carry messages back and forth between Al Qaeda and its leader, Maya reasons, and we will find the man who authorized the 9/11 attacks.
Maya: I'm going to smoke everyone involved in this op and then I'm going to kill bin Laden.
Zero Dark Thirty’s plot is essentially a “how they done it” espionage procedural, with 35 minutes of military action during the climactic raid sequence. We don’t know anything about Maya’s life before 9/11, nor does Zero Dark Thirty delve into her off-the-job personality. As played by the ethereally beautiful Chastain, Maya is an enigmatic heroine. From her first moment onscreen when she’s watching her CIA mentor Dan (Jason Clarke) interrogate an Al Qaeda “errand boy” to the end of the movie, we only see her ferocious zeal to find and kill bin Laden.
Dan: Can I be honest with you? I am bad f--king news. I'm not your friend. I'm not gonna help you. I'm gonna break you. Any questions?
There are, of course, other CIA personnel involved in “the world’s greatest manhunt.” Some, like Dan and CIA analyst “Jessica” (Jennifer Ehle), support Maya’s theory that bin Laden can be found if his couriers can be identified. However, most of her Agency colleagues think Maya is diverting time and resources on a wild goose chase.
The film covers a 10-year period of the War on Terror, so its story focuses on a handful of incidents and personalities. Zero Dark Thirty can’t cram every detail about the 9/11 attacks – which are depicted briefly by snippets of actual cell phone messages recorded that tragic day – or America’s response to them. Instead, it focuses on pivotal moments of the search for bin Laden starting with the 2003 hunt for “the Saudi group,” a shadowy network of Al Qaeda supporters based in Saudi Arabia.
Other events mentioned in the movie are the 2005 terrorist attacks in London, Maya’s assignment to the CIA station in Pakistan, and a deadly Taliban attack on Camp Chapman in Afghanistan.
Some key players, including Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), the CIA station chief in Pakistan, and then-CIA Director Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) are portrayed using their real names. Others in the Agency, including Jessica and a Muslim convert nicknamed “the Wolf,” are not identified to protect them or their relatives from revenge attacks.
My Take: Zero Dark Thirty is a well-made, gripping, conversation-starting, and controversial movie. It’s not a typical Hollywood action epic where the CIA agents play by the rules and treat the Al Qaeda terrorists as enemy combatants. Here, the terrorists are subjected to interrogation methods that fall under anyone’s definition of torture. To their credit, Boal and Bigelow don’t whitewash any of this for the audience’s sake.
First time viewers who want to see the military aspects of Zero Dark Thirty may be disappointed in the film’s narrative focus. The movie sticks mostly to the intelligence-gathering side of the hunt for Osama bin Laden; there are no scenes that show the December 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, nor does it show Al Qaeda’s leader until the SEAL raid on his compound in Abbottabad late in the film’s third act.
Indeed, the military aspects of the bin Laden pursuit take a back seat to Maya’s nearly obsessive hunt for bin Laden’s hideout. Zero Dark Thirty barely hints at the debate within the Obama Administration about bombing the Abbottabad compound or sending special forces operatives. Also, SEAL Team Six’s preparations for Operation Neptune Spear are not mentioned, perhaps due to running time issues.
Bigelow shows the raid itself in a way that gives viewers a you-are-there-in-real-time feeling. She shows Operation Neptune Spear from the SEALs' perspective, so much of what we see is shrouded in darkness or viewed through the lenses of night vision equipment. Some of the details about the top secret stealth helicopters are speculative. The filmmakers based Zero Dark Thirty's modified Black Hawks on Pakistani media images of the chopper that crashed during the mission. Other details, such as the type of night vision goggles the SEALs used, are authentic and add realism to Zero Dark Thirty.
Like most movies based on historical events, Zero Dark Thirty takes lots of artistic license to tell a dramatic story. The CIA’s acting director at the time of the movie’s release said its agents didn’t get information related to bin Laden’s hideout through “enhanced interrogation techniques” and that the film is not historically accurate. This, of course, is a matter of debate. The filmmakers don’t take a clear political stance on the issues of torture or even if killing bin Laden was a matter of revenge or justice.