Wednesday, February 20, 2013

ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012): The Search for bin Laden

There recently was another suicide bombing in the world in Pakistan that killed close to ninety people and wounded two-hundred more.  Pakistan, a country on the brink of being a third world nation that possesses nuclear weapons, is also where Osama bin Laden was killed on May 1, 2011 by United States Special Forces.
Zero Dark Thirty leads us through events that led to the killing of bin Laden - from September 11, 2001 until just after the raid took place.  We hear the 911 calls made during and after the World Trade Centers are attacked.  Next we see prolonged scenes of interrogation including the torture of a combatant named Ammar (Reda Kateb).  Then we see the work of various operatives sifting through information revealed during the interrogations. 
One tip identifies a possible courier for bin Laden, and this eventually results in identifying the compound that bin Laden is believed located.  The major players then sit at the table with CIA Director, Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), the decision is made to raid the compound, and we then have a half hour of filming showing the raid itself.
Just as in The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow demonstrates here she is adept at characterization.  At the center of the film is an operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain).  Maya is not a happy person, has no friends, and has little life outside of her duties to infiltrate al Qaeda networks.  At first queasy about duties that include sitting in on the interrogations where water boarding and enhanced interrogation techniques (torture) are used, she nevertheless becomes good at her job.  She even directs the torture in one or two scenes.  Despite opposition of certain supervisors (predictable in every movie thriller), she convinces the powers that be that a raid needs to be conducted on the compound.
Maya must feel insecure and isolated as the result of taking on such a task.  Attempts are made on her life.  Her attempt at friendship to a fellow agent, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), is brought to a halt when the later is killed by a suicide bomber.  She is personally closest to Dan (Jason Clarke), an agent she first meets while he is interrogating a prisoner through water-boarding.  Maya is smart but, as Panetta remarks, smartness is not key.  Maya is more a useful tool than a person to be admired.  And Maya’s tears at the end of the film were probably not tears of joy.
Zero Dark Thirty rightly should be considered the most controversial film in years, and it needs to make us feel uncomfortable.  It’s a film praised and criticized by both the right and the left for usually the wrong reasons.  Maya is not a feminist film hero like certain critics pretend her to be.  And despite it ending with the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the film is a sober acknowledgment of that fact rather than a feeling of victory.
I hope Americans are not so self-effacing that a movie about such a killing offends them.  No American with a balanced perspective should shed tears over the death of bin Laden.  Osama bin Laden and the Taliban used the plight of suffering people to gain a foothold on power and any U.S. President, regardless of party affiliation, would have sent the troops in if they had known where bin Laden was located.  The number one world power in the nation was (if anything) embarrassed that it took as long as it did.
The controversy in this film lies elsewhere.  Politicians like Senator Dianne Feinstein seem offended at any suggestion that information gleaned from tortures led to the killing of bin Laden.  The United States Senate even released a committee report stating that torture that may or may not have taken place never led to information used to locate bin Laden.  Others more politically to the right feel the depictions of torture were either vastly overstated (and this criticism is probably just) or never conducted (a criticism that is likely na├»ve).
Yet whatever motivations Bigelow had in making this film, she seemed to believe that torture played a role in locating Osama bin Laden.   In Zero Dark Thirty: (1) there is a half hour of movie time portraying torture; (2) Maya is shown obsessing over these interrogations; (3) torturers, including Dan, end up sitting at the same table with Panetta when decisions to raid the compound are made; and (4) politicians referenced throughout the film play lip service as to how torture never occurred.  But believing the torture did play a role doesn’t mean Bigelow condoned the torture.  This her critics have very wrong.  There is no outpouring of self-congratulations when each portion of the mystery is revealed, any celebration after the killing is subdued, and the film is refreshingly short on false displays of piety.
Of today’s best known movie directors, Bigelow comes closest to remaining true to the narrative she is telling.  The film gets to be too much of a one woman show in search for bin Laden, but that search at least never becomes glorified. For a 157 minute film in Zero Dark Thirty, the film never loses intensity.  Nor does the film ever become sentimental or fail to take its story seriously. 
Bigelow could not have pleased her critics, and that’s mostly to her credit.
February 20, 2013

© Robert S. Miller 2013