The film Zero Dark Thirty begins with a black screen and the sound of 9-1-1 calls from the World Trade Center bombarding you and returning you to the tragic sadness of 9/11. It’s a pain we’ve stuffed down but we’re still mourning 9/11 the way a shocking death in the family leaves you in permanent mourning. After the terrorist attacks, America went through the stages of grief–though we were mostly in anger and wanting revenge. That’s what this extraordinary film chronicles: the painstaking path to vengeance.
Director Kathryn Bigelow, who won the Oscar for Best Director for the Best Picture award-winning film Hurt Locker, takes us inside the black sites, detention centers, and CIA offices where military contractors and intelligence operatives battled to extract the information that would find Osama bin Laden. Bigelow is so focused on authenticity and pulling back the curtain on intelligence tactics that the film functions in an almost documentary-like style as Bigelow under-dramatizes this dramatic story. Zero Dark Thirty is stripped of Hollywood schmaltz to tell this important narrative in a direct, harrowing way. We watch water boarding and bloody men dragged across floors in dog collars and squeezed into tiny boxes–it forces you to re-confront your beliefs about torture.
I have always been steadfastly against torture as it felt like nothing less than compromising the American soul and giving our enemies in al Qaeda a gift they could use to inspire and recruit and assert, “see, they’re worse than us.” And pragmatically we know little to no actionable intelligence came from torture. Detective work and treating detainees with respect is much more effective. But as I watched contractors and operatives beat our enemies to a pulp and treat them inhumanely, I wondered if I were in their boots during that time of war, charged with making radicalized men talk on behalf of an angry nation in mourning, could I have not tortured? Would I have been seduced by the potential of just beating information out of someone I hated? I imagine that if I had been CIA at that difficult moment in history I probably would have done what they did.
It’s a difficult, emotional journey, this Zero Dark Thirty. Bombs explode, people die and you recall those years when you lived on the edge because you felt like any violent thing could happen at any second. And yet as the years go on you understand why institutional exhaustion crept in and the men at the upper levels of the CIA grew weary of the search. But for the obsessive determination of one woman, the film says, we might have let the trail go cold. Bigelow’s last film was about the inner turmoil of a male soldier in Iraq but this one is inner-turmoil-free. Maya, the CIA operative chasing after bin Laden’s courier for years, seems made of steel.
The final assault is a long creep through a big house in Pakistan. Say what you will but when that SEAL said, “For God and country, Geronimo,” I almost cried. But the SEALs don’t celebrate there and when one pauses to say “wow, I just shot bin Laden,” another barks, “get back to work.” Zero Dark Thirty has been called a post-political war film as it expresses no pro or con attitude about war. It has also been called the best film of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review and Nee York magazine. Oscar just might agree.