Reviewed by: Jeremy Landes
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|Director||Kathryn Bigelow—“The Hurt Locker”|
Kathryn Bigelow … producer
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|Distributor||Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures|
“The greatest manhunt in history”
Watching “Zero Dark Thirty” is an act of remembrance. Because the suffering caused by war and terrorism occurred a few thousand miles away, and since I wasn’t required to fight, I can too easily forget how many lives have been destroyed, non-Muslim and Muslim, because of Osama bin Laden and his network, Al Qaeda. This film depicts some of the hard work and sacrifice required to stop bin Laden’s reign. In just under three hours, we receive a summary of a decade’s worth of detective work to find the terrorist’s hiding place and then convince the U.S. Government to take a huge risk by attacking him inside Pakistan.
Note: “Zero dark 30” is a common military term referring to a non-specific time when it is dark outside, either very late or very early.
This film is riveting. The filmmakers don’t flinch from showing the harsh torture tactics the U.S. was using for years in order to try and gain information. It is unsettling to watch people being hurt badly—usually, torturers are painted as the bad guys in a story. Interestingly, though, the torture victim responds with good information only when he is treated kindly. Whether this reflects reality, I cannot say, but the movie definitely isn’t making the statement: “Torture works.”
Many epic films center on a noble character that you quickly come to like because they have some endearing quality. Not so here. We watch CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain) for more than two hours, but we learn hardly anything about her, except that she’s passionate about doing whatever is required to find Osama bin Laden and make sure he dies. Her character is based on someone in reality, but personal facts have been obscured to protect her identity. Maya has to constantly overcome pressure to give up, bosses unwilling to help, and doubts from bureaucrats who would rather risk leaving bin Laden alive than make a mistake and lose their jobs. She’s described as “a killer,” though she never raises her fists. When a torture victim begs her to come to his aid and show mercy, she tells him plainly, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” This is a woman who knows she’s doing right, even though you can tell she’s sometimes shaken by the tactics used to avert terrorist attacks. More than once, Maya’s life is in serious peril, and she tells one colleague, “I believe I was spared to finish the job.”
I wondered, “Spared by Whom?” “Does Maya have faith?” but the filmmakers leave that topic alone.
Most people going into the movie will know it’s about finding bin Laden, and they already know he was killed in May 2011, so it would make sense that the movie wouldn’t have much suspense. But director Kathryn Bigelow does such a good job showing the details of the final mission, that you feel like one of the invading soldiers wearing night goggles. It’s an extraordinary scene. I felt that the highest value portrayed in the film was a willingness to be scorned by peers and risk great failure in order to accomplish a worthy mission.
Throughout the film, Maya finds it necessary to swear a lot, using the f-word to gain the attention and respect of her gruff male superiors. The tactic works. I thought the tough language was probably an accurate portrayal of that work environment. Watching people blow themselves and other people up and using machine guns to destroy civilians is not entertaining for me, but “Zero Dark Thirty” is attempting to depict some history that includes horrific violence.
In decades to come, when new generations wonder about the first decade of the new millennium, I believe this is a film that will still be watched to explain the wars America was fighting. It neither glorifies violence nor denies what happened, so I have a hard time labeling the film even “somewhat offensive,” believing that what is shown here is necessary in order to remember correctly.
Violence: Heavy / Profanity: Heavy / Sex/Nudity: Minor
See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.