Seeking justice isn’t always pretty, but when it’s accomplished, it’s a beautiful thing.
Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal depict that vividly in Zero Dark Thirty—the story of the decade long manhunt for Osama bin Laden—rated R for a firestorm of language, depictions of interrogation, and war-related violence.
Superb storytelling, riveting detail, and timing that keeps you interested, anxious, and hopeful make this movie one of the best movies of the year and possibly one of the best war films of all time. It tells a story we know well—a story that began on Sept. 11, 2001.
Based on Boal’s research and interviews with the CIA, the film unfolds like a good news article without ambiguity or confusion. Though some details were changed or condensed to serve the trajectory of the narrative, the general facts are there. There is little editorializing, leaving the heavy lifting for the viewers, as real news should.
When the film starts, audio clips of phone calls from first responders, victims trapped on the upper floors of the Twin Towers, and plane passengers calling their loved ones ripple across a black screen: a horrific reminder of that evil day, seared forever in our memories.
Fast-forward two years to a CIA black site in Pakistan. An al-Qaeda operative with ties to Khalid Sheikh Mohammad is being interrogated, his wrists bolted in chains fastened to the ceiling. Maya, a young CIA recruit fresh from the States, observes. She watches the water boarding, the confinement and the humiliation.
Nothing works. Finally, following a deadly attack in Saudi Arabia, Maya suggests a new tactic: subterfuge, along with food and fresh air. It works. They get the names needed to continue the hunt, which becomes Maya’s driving passion.
Critics are lambasting the movie as “pro torture” because of these scenes, which include a few moments of rear nudity. Anyone who takes time to investigate will discover, as Mark Bowden states in an op-ed for The Atlantic, that the film is neutral on the subject. While Bigelow and Boal depict the interrogation with gritty detail, they don’t demonize the CIA interrogators and leave the question of morality and effectiveness up to the viewers.
Conversely, the motivation behind al-Qaeda’s ruthless slaughter of American people on American soil is clear. Maya, played perfectly by Jessica Chastain, clearly states that extremism drives al-Qaeda. Her analysis is not widely held by her colleagues, accurately depicting the divergence of thought on the subject.
Maya’s co-worker Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) believes that, like former enemies, al-Qaeda can be bought. Maya disagrees and tries to no avail to convince her friend. Jessica’s misunderstanding of al-Qaeda’s worldview leads to a tragic disaster, revealing the truth of Maya’s assessment and leaving her more committed than ever to finding bin Laden.
Her dogged persistence keeps her in Pakistan for years, following a lead many think is pointless. A breakthrough comes when the CIA finds the real name of bin Laden’s most trusted courier—a tip that eventually leads to the compound in Abbottabad.
Maya believes with certainty that bin Laden is there, but must convince her superiors, Leon Panetta and President Obama. The mission stalls for months, as the leadership seeks hard evidence to substantiate her claims.
At last the mission is a go. A team of Navy SEALs is dispatched to the compound, where the raid unfolds through the greenish hue of night vision optics, unclouded by hazy ambivalence about the justice of the mission.
When the SEALs make it to the third floor of the compound and shoot bin Laden, they are in momentary shock. The mission is over and for one Hollywood moment, America, the CIA, and the military are heroes. Justice is accomplished and that alone is sublime.