As a 9-year-old living on a foreign military base after 9/11, the idea that Osama Bin Laden could be hiding anywhere sort of freaked me out. I used to stare at the bushes across the street and picture a bearded face poking out, noticing me and then returning into hiding. Of course, this was a childish reaction to something so serious, but after witnessing the frustrating, seemingly hopeless actions of the characters in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” I realized those were the good old days.
The movie began with CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) using unfortunately well-known methods of torture on a suspect in the most engaging and controversial openings of any movie this season. The struggle with the big issue at hand was set forth: Finding Osama Bin Laden would not be done easily. I can safely say throwing a washcloth at my face will now be the easiest way to get me to shriek.
One or two more scenes of this nature continued to throw wood on the fire of this consciousness that may make a few viewers uncomfortable but, in context proved these tactics might be ineffective. They were no doubt controversial in many people’s eyes, but, much like “Zodiac,” the grace and suspense of research proved to more compelling.
These sequences were more interesting not only by their aggression and deepening of the story but also the reactions and methods of lead character Maya (Jessica Chastain), who stood firm and uncomfortable in the background and later led the charge. Played to perfection, Maya was the workaholic on par with a cop sent in to infiltrate a mob unit. Living off junk food, she was a ghost, had very few friends, appeared strong and confident on the outside and in front of colleagues but worn down and innocent underneath. She broke down at times as the acts of torture and hunting seemed aimless, but only in dark corners where no one could see her. Crybabies don’t catch terrorists.
The film can easily seem tedious regarding all the interrogations and suspect theories, but that’s part of it. To think the act of finding this man and unraveling the pieces of the puzzle would be easy, for one just needs to look into the eyes of any one of the characters. It was amazing how many people can become insomniacs all doing the same thing.
However, the last 20 minutes during the raid on Bin Laden’s hideout was what everyone was hoping to see. Much like “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow proved she knew exactly how to create an action sequence both with characters and with guns. She traded in gun battles for intensity and suspense as it shifted between first-person night vision goggles and standard style. Mixed with attention to detail, the film showed actors demonstrating professionalism, exceeded only by actual Navy Seals, and immersing the audience into what it was actually like to be a part of it. Fans of well-made movies and “Call of Duty” will be thrilled.
As with any movie of this sort, the facts always come into question. How much of what I just saw actually happened? According to Bigelow, Maya, as well as the events, are all true, with names and dialog fictionalized. Whether this is all true, what made the movie work was dramatic and intense handling of the film with all the frustration and a decade of dedication draining all it could from everyone involved.
Just watch the end as Maya boards a plane after the raid, the long road behind her and an empty hanger in front. The pilot asked, “where to?” responded by silence and tears.