Zero Dark Thirty directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal (Annapurna Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Alliance Films, R, 157 minutes)
Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, and Chris Pratt.
Have you ever experienced that plateau? The moment after a long-awaited goal is accomplished. You feel relief. Excitement. Even joy as you look back on the hard work it took for you to achieve this step in life. Sometimes during these moments, the next step seems ever the more daunting. Sometimes, an accomplishment equals disappointment because it means there’s no more work, no more opportunity within the specific sphere of focus.
Interestingly, Zero Dark Thirty uses the manhunt of Osama bin Laden to represent themes of dedication and retribution as well as focusing on the big question of next steps in the wake of such a singular pursuit.
A Principal Character—A Singular Story
Zero Dark Thirty centers on its principal character, Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she works on intelligence surrounding Osama bin Laden. A young CIA operative, Maya’s career to date has focused exclusively on bin Laden. In 2003, she transfers to the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan to assist in interrogating detainees.
And just so we’re clear, “assist” means “torture.” While Maya does not complete these actions with her own hands, these interrogations utilize waterboarding and many forms of humiliation in order to glean information on al-Qaeda.
Slowly but surely, these tactics unveil a picture of high-level al-Qaeda operations and the potential of locating bin Laden. More specifically, Maya learns of a possible bin Laden courier with the pseudonym “Abu Ahmed.”
This nugget of information consumes Maya. She reasons that if she can find the courier who sends the messages to al-Qaeda operatives, she’ll find the leader. With advancing years, Maya’s confidence grows but the post-9/11 world in which we all live continues to reveal its treacherous head. Life as a CIA operative in Pakistan is dangerous and the road to bin Laden is treacherous.
Through relentless work, Maya finally uncovers the whereabouts of the alive Abu Ahmed and traces his location to a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The rest, as it is said, is history.
The Cost of Revenge
For me, the two dominant themes in Zero Dark Thirty surround the notion of dedication and retaliation as well as the harmony or discord between the two ideas. 9/11 left a nation raw and forced us into a position of revanchism. Given the horrors we all witnessed in New York City that day, it’s easy to succumb to a position of revenge no matter the ethical cost.
The scenes of torture that litter the front end of Zero Dark Thirty cause questions. While these actions hold no resemblance to the nasty torture devices of centuries past, the scenes of waterboarding and other actions of humiliation are inhumane. There could be worse, but we would never wish these actions on others if the stakes were lower, even if they certainly contributed to the uncovering of bin Laden. Was torture a necessary evil? Or would you rather we have refrained from these devices perhaps at the expense of finding bin Laden?
Additionally, Zero Dark Thirty zeroes in on the dedication of one civil servant, Maya. When all hope was lost, she continued to pursue a lead; she continued to think outside the box, hoping to diagnose the methods and actions of a diabolical leader in the post 9/11 world.
Maya’s job is not pretty; in fact, it’s not even one for which she could ever receive widespread acclaim. Her dedication to the job aligns with the public position of retaliation. She holds a front-row seat for history. But is there more to life than dedication and retaliation? Zero Dark Thirty seems to imply in the affirmative when the task is complete and the job is no more. Maya has no clue what’s next. America spent a decade pursuing public enemy number one. Now that we’ve achieved our goal, where will America go from here?
Zero Dark Thirty is a thrilling film. It is deep and suspenseful, to the point that you remain on the edge of your seat even though you know the outcome. Go watch this film as it will certainly be in the running for multiple Academy awards.
Verdict: 5 out of 5