Zero Dark Thirty retells gritty history

The maker of The Hurt Locker explores the darkness behind capturing Osama Bin Laden

<i>Zero Dark Thirty</i> retells gritty history
Jonathan Olley
Jessica Chastain is sensational as the woman on bin Laden's trail

"Just so you know, it's going to take a while," says the CIA officer to his newly arrived colleague at the start of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. The year is 2003, the place a secret prison (or "black site") somewhere in the deserts of the Middle East or Asia, the task at hand the interrogation of a detainee with suspected ties to Al Qaeda. The agency man, Dan (Jason Clarke), has clearly been at this for a stretch, with a full beard, Arabic script tattooed along his forearm, and a laid-back surfer parlance that belies his skill as a highly trained operative. Perhaps not realizing that waterboarding would be on the first day's agenda, his new partner, Maya (Jessica Chastain), shows up in a smart black pantsuit. "There's no shame if you want to watch from the monitor," he advises, though we soon see that Maya has no trouble with getting up close.

What takes a while in Zero Dark Thirty is the gathering of useful information from suspects who don't want to divulge it, even as "enhanced" methods of coercion and humiliation are applied to loosen their tongues. What takes even longer is the fitting of that information into the jigsaw of false leads, trap doors, and dead ends that was the U.S. government's decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. So Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (who previously collaborated on the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker) put that interrogation scene right up front, not to shock us or to sound the cry of moral outrage, but to let us know what we're in for. We might already know how this story begins, with the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center (here deftly represented by an audio montage of real emergency phone calls, played against a darkened screen). We might also know how it ends, with the May 1, 2011, Navy SEAL raid on the suburban compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden had been hiding in something like plain sight. But in Zero Dark Thirty, the drama is in the middle distance.

Call it torture if you must, but Zero Dark Thirty never does, which will stoke the ire of the human rights community and puzzle those on the right who regard Hollywood as a bastion of simpering liberalism. People on both sides might find the interrogation scenes difficult to watch, which is as it should be. Like most of what we see in the film, these are depicted as part of a process, a means to an end — and yes, it must be said, a mostly effective one. But as in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow and Boal (a former Village Voice reporter) come not to judge but to show, leaving the rest up to us. Political parties and allegiances barely enter into the mix: Obama, the sitting president at the time of the bin Laden raid, appears only as a talking head on a television in the background of one scene (denying, as it happens, that America tortures prisoners).


Zero Dark Thirty
directed by Kathryn Bigelow
area theaters, starts Friday

"Just so you know, it's going to take a while." Time is as much the enemy in Zero Dark Thirty as it was for the elite bomb squad of The Hurt Locker — only there, you could see the little red numbers counting down to extinction, whereas here the next attack could come at any time and with no advance warning, on a crowded London subway or at a seemingly impregnable CIA base in the mountains of Afghanistan. The uncertainty is feverishly gripping; the attacks, when they do occur, never less than startling. Above all, Bigelow makes you feel the crushing defeat of those who know they might have prevented them, especially Maya, with her allusive name and sentry's gaze, always seeming to look through people rather than at them, focused on the endgame. It's a sensational performance by Chastain, who was the earth mother in The Tree of Life and the paranoid's wife in Take Shelter, and who is here front and center for the entire picture. She's a most unlikely leading lady, pale and slight of stature, with a raging mane of strawberry blond hair, but she holds the screen with a feral intensity, an obsessive's self-possession. She's a fanatic pursuing a fanatic, a hunter entering into the mind of the hunted.

About 25 minutes of screen time pass before we first hear the name of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the trusted bin Laden courier who will eventually lead the CIA to their prize catch.

When the raid finally comes, it's almost an anticlimax, not because we know bin Laden will be there, but because even if we didn't, Maya's unshakable faith would by now have us convinced. Still, the sequence is electrifying, and coming after the workaday ordinariness of everything that precedes it, reconfirmation of Bigelow as a master of high-tech action, from the modified Black Hawk helicopters slicing silently through the Abbottabad skies to the precisely choreographed storming of the compound itself — all of it captured in a mixture of night vision and pellucid HD videography by cameraman Greig Fraser. Bigelow and Boal don't overly heroicize the mission — no literal or figurative flag-waving, no rah-rah orchestral score — in part because they take the heroism to be self-evident and in part because they marvel at the smooth professionalism of the SEALs, who manage to bag bin Laden swiftly and with a minimum of collateral damage, as if it really were just another day at the office. It's only a few scenes later that Zero Dark Thirty reaches its true emotional peak, when Maya, framed in medium close-up, does something we haven't seen her do for the past two and a half hours. She exhales.

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Imagine 2 things about TORTURE (and that's what it is---please call it what it is, not the jargon of "enhanced interrogation" you wimp author of the article)  

1. That this could be  your chid or loved one

2. Torture makes MORE terrorists in the world .  


This review implies that calling waterboarding torture is a matter of semantics ("Call it torture if you must")  and says that torture is an effective means to an end "and it must be said, a mostly effective one".  This statement belies a serious ignorance of the facts at the heart of the controversy around this film.  Namely, that 

(1) torture did not help find bin Laden was gained through torture (this has been publicly stated by several officials including Senators McCain, Levin, and Feingold in this strongly worded letter:, 

(2) Zero Dark Thirty is NOT a documentary so please don't rely on anything portrayed in that movie to determine whether torture was helpful, 

(3) waterboarding is torture.  And, yes, we must call it torture because it is.  This has been found in numerous courts of law and tribunals.  The US military used this as a basis for executing Japanese who used waterboarding on US servicemen in World War II.

(4) torture is extremely immoral and unlawful under any circumstances and should be called out as such.

The whole point of the controversy is that the movie may lead some people to believe that torture helped the US find bin Laden and this in turn might result in some idiots thinking that torture is a most effective means to an end.  Apparently these concerns are warranted.


I remember when City Pages had a soul. Granted, it was a neo-marxist, deeply liberal one, but at least then it had one.

"Call it torture if you must,"

¬†"People on both sides might find the interrogation scenes difficult to watch, which is as it should be. Like most of what we see in the film, these are depicted as part of a process, a means to an end ‚ÄĒ and yes, it must be said, a mostly effective one."

 It is almost as if City Pages, the writer and the Village voice, have never heard of the concept of a Military/Industrial complex seeking to perpetuate itself. Which would make Boal and Bigelow more like de-facto CIA assets, and by extension the aforementioned media and writer. But then, this is Art apparently, and so immune from the charge of propaganda? Right. I guess too, maybe I'm naive, and Americans have decided, anything is acceptable, in defending the American way.

www dot offthegridmpls dot blogspot dot com


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