With any government or military operation, it's safe to assume they only tell the public what they want them to know. So it's unlikely Zero Dark Thirty
is a tell-all about the events that led to the death of Osama Bin Laden. But it is a well-made, captivating, intense procedural about some of the key events that led to his discovery.
After 9/11, an elite team of intelligence and military operatives focused on finding the mastermind behind the attacks that shook the world – by any means necessary. Recruited by the CIA straight out of high school, Maya (Jessica Chastain) dedicated her career and a decade of her life to capturing America's most wanted. Convinced she's following the lead that will result in Bin Laden's location, she dedicates all her resources to finding a single man: his personal messenger. History shows it worked and the al-Qaeda leader was indeed hiding in his messenger's compound. Bin Laden was found and eliminated by Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May 2011.
To set the tone, the film opens with a series of 911 calls made on September 11, 2001 from the World Trade Center in New York before it collapsed, killing thousands. The replaying of this tragedy is in some way meant to justify (or at least explain) the subsequent torture of a terrorist at a secret CIA location, believed to have information about the location of Bin Laden. It's not a heavy handed tactic, and whether it's successful is up to the individual; but the implication is there.
The story then shifts from the treatment of prisoners to Maya and her manhunt. Her story is told through various wins and losses over the 10-year period, leading up to the biggest win of her career. Chastain is an excellent actress and she is well casted in this role. However, there is some harsher dialogue that either doesn't fit the character she created or the rest of the film. It's mostly an attempt to make her appear stronger by cursing and it doesn't work. Her conviction, though, is persuasive.
Several real events are reported throughout the narrative to continuously give it context. From gunmen that opened fire in Saudi Arabia killing mostly Westerners in 2004 to the bus explosion in London in 2005 to the car bomb that destroyed the Marriott hotel in Pakistan in 2008; President Obama is shown publicly denouncing the torture of prisoners, which changes the way the CIA operates going forward. As these attacks occur under public scrutiny, the CIA works secretly behind the scenes to find the perpetrators. In addition, intertitles identify the significant event about to play out on screen, such as "The Meeting" and "Tradecraft."
Though the dialogue is often dry or unnatural, the operations and technical elements of the film are where director Kathryn Bigelow shines. She expertly pieces together these events that are years apart so they flow effortlessly. As the work moves from dark rooms and offices around the globe to the field, the camera takes more liberties creating even greater tension. The 40 minutes that follow Maya receiving the call that they're raiding the Pakistani compound is brilliant. Joel Edgerton's role is limited, but he remains charming and convincing as the squadron team leader. From the stealth helicopters sweeping through the air to the banter before they crash land to clearing the building and gathering evidence, it all plays fantastically.
However, one of the elements that usually appears in other military movies but is missing from this picture is derogatory language. While this may seem like a positive, its lack gives the further impression that the story is sanitized for audiences. But that's probably the worst offense this film commits, making the Academy's best picture nomination deserving and best director snub surprising.
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jessica Chastain
, Joel Edgerton
and Chris Pratt