Zero Dark Thirty: The End of the Sheik

THE GREATEST MANHUNT IN HISTORY.

zerodarkthirtyThe portrayal of torture in Zero Dark Thirty has sparked a fierce debate, but those Academy members who are boycotting the film tread on thin ice. Perhaps they should reserve their ire for a movie that is clearly guilty of the accusation? Kathryn Bigelow has definitely come out against torture, and as another liberal icon, Michael Moore, pointed out recently it was above all excellent detective work that produced the info on Osama bin Laden that finally killed him. Still, the consequences of torture as shown in the movie certainly offers reason for a frank discussion.

In 2003, a young CIA operative called Maya (Jessica Chastain) is transferred to the U.S. embassy in Pakistan where she gets to know Dan (Jason Clarke), a colleague who is using enhanced interrogation techniques against terror suspects at CIA black sites. Uncomfortable at first, Maya soon finds her role alongside Dan and they patiently wait for their potentially most valuable suspect, Ammar, to break. Eventually he gives them a name, Abu Ahmed, a man who could be working as Osama bin Laden’s personal courier. After having other suspects tortured in Pakistan, Maya begins to realize that she’s really on to something.

In the following years, even as Dan has enough and goes back to Washington for a comfortable desk job, Maya becomes a veteran CIA officer who survives terror attacks and develops an obsession with finding bin Laden – but then she learns that Abu Ahmed could actually be dead.

Believable and levelheaded
Controversy followed the making of this movie from the start. In the beginning, Republicans jumped on the notion that Obama Administration officials might have given Bigelow illegal access to secrets in order to help her make a propaganda movie. What is real and not about this movie is impossible to say at this point. Was there a real Maya? Yes, apparently, to some extent, but her identity is classified. Did torture play a major role in the hunt for bin Laden? Not clear, but we do know that the CIA used methods illustrated in the film under George W. Bush’s presidency; how much they helped kill bin Laden, or if the same intel could have been found in other ways, we don’t know.

What matters is that the film is believable and levelheaded, making us understand why Dan is using those methods, and the same attitude is also present in the rest of the film, coolly noting the shifting sentiments as a new president takes power and torture becomes a less valuable instrument than good old-fashioned intelligence in combination with modern spycraft tools. In fact, much of it makes you feel like you’re watching an unusually privileged documentary, even taking us along for the Navy SEAL mission in Abbottabad that took out bin Laden.

The final 45 minutes are so tense they make you hold your breath; the preceding two hours have a few lulls but are still gripping as we follow the CIA’s work and get a vivid reminder of all the horrible bombings that dominated the news in those days. The cast is uniformly fine, but Chastain stands out as Maya, a woman in a very male world whose struggle against those who view bin Laden as a deadend case wins her few friends.

This is a major achievement for Bigelow, who reteamed with her partner from The Hurt Locker (2009), Mark Boal, for another technically superb but also intellectually challenging and emotional tour de force from a war zone. They may not get every detail right, but they know how to see the big picture in the way that matters the most, stay true to those on the frontline, and milk every last drop of tension out of the battlefield drama.

Zero Dark Thirty 2012-U.S. 157 min. Color. Produced by Megan Ellison, Kathryn Bigelow, Mark Boal. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Screenplay: Mark Boal. Music: Alexandre Desplat. Editing: William Goldenberg, Dylan Tichenor. Cast: Jessica Chastain (Maya), Jason Clarke (Dan), Joel Edgerton (Patrick), Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler, Édgar Ramírez…. Fares Fares, James Gandolfini, Chris Pratt.

Trivia: Rooney Mara was allegedly first considered for the part of Maya.

Oscar: Best Sound Editing. Golden Globe: Best Actress (Chastain).

Last word: “On a personal level, [the torture scenes] were really hard to do. The audience wants to look away but knows they shouldn’t. It’s wrenching and difficult, and that is acknowledged in the cues we see in Jessica Chastain. She looks away; she covers her mouth. That is how many people in the audience react, or how they would react if they were in that room. It’s the kind of thing we instinctively rebel against. That says something about the larger issue here, too, which is that it’s easier to turn away from it than face it. It paints an honest picture of what was happening, and we are only beginning to come to terms with it.” (Bigelow, TIME)

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