After giving the audience an explicit lesson on the origins of the term ‘waterboarding,’ CIA officer Dan (Jason Clark) stares into the eyes of the terrorist Omar and spits, “In the end, bro, everybody breaks. It’s biology.”
Dan then turns and slams the door on a defenseless and soon-to-be-broken Omar, attached to chains hanging from the ceiling. There is a visible ripple of shivers that creeps through the audience members in the movie theater as they fail to stomach, for the third time in thirty minutes, the grotesque torture tactics employed by CIA officers post-9/11. The motivating disgust and perilous fervor presented in the scene, as well as the engaging discomfort felt by the audience members, characterize Zero Dark Thirty as one of the most disturbingly immersive movie-going experiences of the year.
Brought to life under the sophisticated direction of Kathryn Bigelow and by Jessica Chastain’s satisfyingly brazen performance, Zero Dark Thirty presents as accurately as publicly possible the perilous hunt for and consequential killing of terrorist Osama bin Laden.
The film, which gets its name from the military slang for a time just after midnight, primarily follows Maya (Chastain), an obsessed and gutsy CIA officer who is determined to pursue convincing leads contrary to the hesitation of her superiors. Even though the specifics of the real life operation are classified, the film presents the events with believable detail and appropriate respect for those who were involved in the hunt.
When it was announced fourteen months ago that Osama bin Laden was successfully executed by a United States Navy SEALS team, Americans embraced the news with pride and exuberance. There was a miniscule but undeniable sense of justice and closure that marked the event as a national victory. The patriotism associated with the story provides its potential to be an overdramatized portrayal of indomitable Americans swiftly murdering criminals à la Sherlock Holmes.
Thankfully, Bigelow’s controlled and disciplined direction tastefully portrays the events, and reconfirms, after The Hurt Locker, the respect she holds for individuals who risk themselves every day for the good of the country.
The pace slows in the second half of the movie, when Bigelow clearly wanted audiences to experience main character Maya’s frustration at Washington’s hesitation to take action on the lead she has developed throughout the film. Since the audience has been a part of the lead’s development up to this point, it is painful to spend half an hour in a movie seat watching the President’s advisees as they doubt and question the intelligence of a character that we have grown to empathize with.
During the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, viewers follow SEAL team members at crouched levels and maneuver through seemingly identical courtyards and doorways at a cautious but driven pace. The scenes do not have a glamorized feel of fast-paced action sequences in other Hollywood successes, such as The Bourne Supremacy. We experience the raid in a surprisingly steady manner that does not seek to overdramatize the action involved. While some question the accuracy of the film, former CIA analyst Nada Bakos confirmed that she thought the “SEAL scenes were fantastic” in an interview with Fox News.
Viewers should be warned that many scenes in Zero Dark Thirty are uncomfortably effective.
When Bates student Carly Peruccio considers the film, the only adjective that comes to mind is “disturbing.”
The film opens with numbing audible reminder of the September 11th terrorist attacks. By reconnecting audience members personally to the attacks, the opening successfully instills in viewers a fervor similar to that of the CIA officers assigned to the hunt. It validates their motivation in perilous situations and helps us to sympathize with their later frustration from any roadblocks they may face.
In recent months, the torture scenes have sparked debates throughout the country over whether the film makes the case for torture or not. It is important to remember that Zero Dark Thirty is a historical piece; it tries to portray an event in history as accurately as possible. It includes torture because it is an essential part of the story, and to not include it would mean creating a more watered down and less accurate portrayal of the hunt.
Bigelow herself has responded to the question in numerous interviews by stating that it is impossible to know whether CIA officers would have found bin Laden without intelligence gained through torture.
Bates sophomore Eliza Gabriel views torture as having a more concrete message in the film.
“I thought it was particularly interesting how, in the scene when the group finds out that torture will not be permitted as a result of Obama’s actions, it was portrayed as this huge roadblock that would slow the process immensely.”
In reality, Zero Dark Thirty is a small taste of the more complex operation to find bin Laden. It provides viewers with a powerful immersion in to the experience without documenting each detail. For those who are searching for an anally accurate account of the story, the new HBO show Manhunt, premiering this spring, will reveal real accounts from CIA officers once involved with the hunt themselves.
Zero Dark Thirty is still playing in many theaters.