Zero Dark Thirty: Patriotism, Ambition, or Was it Personal?

By Sandra Olmsted

In Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal reteam to tackle the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but not just the May 1st, 2011 raid on the Al Qaeda leader’s suburban Abbottabad compound. The main focus of their film is the decade-long search for him by the driven Maya (Jessica Chastain), an interrogator for the US government’s black opts. Although Maya is not a real person, she is based on real women who Boal, formerly an investigative newspaper reporter, discovered in his research.

The film opens with a black screen and voices, via telephone calls, from the Twin Towers after the planes struck on 9/11, which set the national context for the desire to get bin Laden. What is not easily evident is why Maya wants to find bin Laden.

Maya’s first day of work includes an interrogation session with her new boss, veteran CIA interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke) who waterboards, humiliates, and tortures Ammar (Reda Kateb), a suspected terrorist or perhaps just some guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Although President Bush is never seen on screen, it is important to remember during the early interrogation scenes, that these operations were under Bush’s orders.

Bigelow and Boal ask viewers to evaluate if torture really nets good intelligence or if it creates enemies who are targeting the interrogators. Ultimately, it is Maya’s ability to put together little clues and to convince others that following bin Laden’s couriers will lead to his location. Getting into bin Laden’s head and many long hours of tracking the little clues accounts for the unsympathetic nature of the Maya character.

Maya’s only friend, Jessica (Jennifer Ehle), shares Maya’s determination to get bin Laden, but Jessica’s approach is different. Jessica thinks she has found an informant who will give her bin Laden’s whereabouts, but the terrorists have their own agenda regarding the interrogation agents. Jessica’s plan results in a suicide bombing on an American base, and the audience may start thinking about how the actions of the interrogators may have escalated the suicide bombings and if this escalation was part of the process and cost of locating bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders.

When Maya finally locates bin Laden, the next problem is convincing her bosses, including CIA boss Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini), that she has bin Laden in her sights and that they better move quickly.  Of course, the fact that a secret mission raiding a compound in a “friendly” country could be considered an act of war doesn’t seem to phase Maya. She wants the raid to happen now, and she uses a dry erase marker to remind her boss how much time has elapsed since she found bin Laden. Although President Obama’s go ahead for the mission is indicated, he is also not a character in this drama.

The final 40 minutes or so of the film recreate the raid on bin Laden’s compound in nearly real time and use techniques that give the film the greenish hue of  night vision glasses. The raid, of course, did not go perfectly smooth because one of the high tech helicopters crashes and because the neighbors are only barely kept at bay.

Although some of the other residents of the compound are killed, mostly the Navy SEALs are careful not to kill indiscriminately, but the Arab advisor seems deeply affected by these deaths. This necessary assumption of character’s emotions is part of the difficulty with many of the film’s characters, including Maya who is so alone that the audience have no way of hearing her discuss her thoughts and feelings.

However, in real life, it is very difficult to know what others are thinking when their thoughts are not verbalized, and this is the realism on which Bigelow and Boal bank their entire film and even the final closeup of Maya.

Although Chastain is excellent as Maya, the character as written never reveals if her motivations are patriotism, ambition, or personal. If Bigelow and Boal intended a character study about Maya’s development as an agent wrapped in a spy thriller, than it would be in keeping with their last collaboration, The Hurt Locker which won the Best Picture Oscar® in 2008.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences nominated Zero Dark Thirty for five Oscars®: Jessica Chastain as Best Actress in a Leading Role, Film Editing, Best Picture, Sound Editing, and Original Screenplay. What seems to be missing is a directing nomination for Bigelow, the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar® when she won for The Hurt Locker.

In theaters now, Zero Dark Thirty is a Sony Picture release of a Columbia Pictures Production. The film runs 157 minutes and is Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language. Viewers should be aware that the images of torture and the raid at the end embrace a realism that is powerful but also gruesome.

More of Olmsted’s reviews are available at www.thecinematicskinny.com.



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