Unavoidably the movie of the year, Kathryn Bigelow’s controversial quasi-journalistic thriller, dramatized from original reporting by screenwriter Mark Boal, surveys the decade-long quest to bring down Osama bin Laden. A taut procedural, spun from the point of view of Jessica Chastain’s lone wolf CIA analyst, the film seems temperamentally more tenacious than triumphalist, and maybe therefore also as lucid an elaboration of the “war on terror” as we can ever hope to get from Hollywood. But has anyone asked why we should ever hope to get such a thing from Hollywood?
Neither the Obama reelection commercial nor the torture apologia some blowhards feared it would be, Zero Dark Thirty is at the very least a marvel of management, with more than a hundred speaking parts and apparently as many locations, and the agility to pack so much highly unruly recent history into a superb example of contemporary political-thriller vernacular. Notably, the film Boal and Bigelow originally had planned was about failing to find bin Laden; then came the real-life raid on that compound in Abbottabad, and back to their drawing board the filmmakers went. In Zero Dark Thirty they rely on techniques that served them well in The Hurt Locker: the simultaneous emphasis on realistic immediate details and on movieish narrative propulsion. Their abiding insight is that there is great power in not seeming exaggerated.
Although condensing a decade’s worth of complex events obviously requires some selectiveness, the movie does occasionally feel like a reporter’s notebook dump. Or else, perhaps more troublingly, it feels like just another thriller offered up for passive consumption. At worst, splitting the difference, it has the disquieting and increasingly familiar coyness of the merely true-ish. But it certainly captures the cultural legacy of 9/11, and reveals the euphemized brutalities of recent American foreign policy: the span of the film is just long enough to convey a sense of the sun setting on enhanced interrogation even as it rises on drone strikes.
Reportedly based on a real, still-active operative, Chastain’s character deliberately has no backstory; she’s only going forward, like a shark. “You don’t think she’s a little young for the hard stuff?” someone asks. “Washington says she’s a killer,” comes the reply. Early on, she hesitantly supplies the water for a waterboarding. Later, with hesitancy abated, she intimates a divine mandate to “finish the job.” Later still, she rattles off a proudly profane one-liner to her boss, and announces certainty when everyone else speaks only of probability. (For military purposes, this reads as earned authority: “Her confidence” is one Navy SEAL’s given reason for believing in his appointed mission.) Finally, once the job is finished, she sits alone and cries. The last shot in this generally close-up-averse movie is a close-up of her harrowed face.
Notwithstanding that and the choice to open with an audio-only collage of emergency calls from the burning twin towers, the tone of Zero Dark Thirty tends toward the uninflected, verging on detachment. Should we take it as a revenger’s tragedy? Maybe there’s a hint in Alexandre Desplat’s moody score, which borrows less from the stock repertoire of martial drums and brass than from Bernard Herrmann’s music for Vertigo. It suggests this is really a movie about a soul-hollowing obsession, and about the sometimes terrible beauty of movies.
People often approve of historical thrillers whose real-life outcomes they know by saying they got caught up in the suspense anyway. Knowing how Zero Dark Thirty ends means very much wanting to see how it ends. There must be some ancient storytelling stuff at work in how it makes us wait, and yearn, for that re-created raid — the indelible spectacle of a methodical and unfortunately amazing night-vision climax. This is not done in a particularly sensational way. We barely even see bin Laden himself, but cannot fail to note that we’re storming lethally through a house full of unarmed women and children. On first impression, the scene seems like it might be one of the most brilliantly staged action set pieces in the history of film.
So if this movie endorses anything, it’s the opportunism of movies. At a time when even the trailers for laughably less sophisticated films than this can spur deadly riots in the Arab world, it’s hard not to worry about how the Hollywood behemoth that is Zero Dark Thirty, abetted by its inevitable Oscar-season self-congratulation, may pour fuel on fires already raging within the hearts of bin Laden’s would-be avengers.