ZERO DARK THIRTY A-
If anyone had suggested one of the leading Oscar contenders would be a movie about the successful hunt in tracking down public enemy number one, the leader of al Qaeda, otherwise known as the “big man” or “UBL,” Osama bin Laden, many would think this had movie-of-the-week written all over it, an easy subject to exploit and turn into a forgettable piece of feel good jingoism. And yes, *that* movie was made, SEAL TEAM SIX: THE RAID ON OSAMA BIN LADEN (2012), created by a group of people that turned the raid into a work of fiction, completely contradicted by a true account that was written by ex-Navy SEAL Team 6 member Mark Bissonnette in his book No Easy Day, a first hand account of the attack and killing of Osama bin Laden. What’s interesting is that screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow were already involved in making a movie exposing the unsuccessful decade-long CIA search for bin Laden when events on the ground generated a complete rewrite after he was discovered and killed in May 2011. What follows is a meticulously designed chronological procedural, an extremely well researched piece of speculative history, based upon several meetings with the CIA and Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer prize winning journalistic exposé, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, which describes the background for several terrorist attacks, some prior to 9/11, suggesting the subsequent investigations afterwards were largely bungled by a lack of cooperation between the FBI and the CIA, each answering to their own bureaucratic hierarchy. In a rather provocative opening, Bigelow opens her film with a black screen, hearing only the sounds of emergency 911 phone recordings where people are desperately calling for help after the World Trade Tower attacks on 9/11. Immediately afterwards, though some years later, we see the American response, a graphically brutal CIA prison interrogation that involves a continuously bound detainee subjected to beatings, sleep deprivation, sadistic humiliation, waterboarding, and other means of torture, all designed to extract information that is not forthcoming, even after the barbaric treatment.
While some, including the current CIA director Michael Morell (Acting CIA Head: Zero Dark Thirty Isn’t Realistic) have suggested the film either glorifies (Zero Dark Thirty: new torture-glorifying film wins raves | Glenn Greenwald | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk) or inaccurately depicts the use of torture, especially as it so graphically introduces the audience straightaway into the dreadful details of the war on terror, but despite refusing to spare the audience from seeing various acts of torture, or shying away from exposing our nation’s culpability in these secret interrogations, always hidden away in some secret location identified as black cells, there’s not a shred of evidence to suggest Bigelow has any ulterior motives. But that’s not stopping the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, headed by California’s Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, from launching an investigation into the CIA’s involvement with the movie (Senate investigating contact between CIA and “Zero Dark Thirty” filmmakers ), like some deep government secret was revealed, which is surely a big waste of time. If anything, Bigelow’s film is surprisingly free of political content and instead hones in on her slowly evolving narrative, which is the decade-long search for bin Laden. When these interrogation methods fail to prevent other al Qaeda terrorist acts from occurring, the CIA interrogation team comprised of Dan (Jason Clark), the chief interrogator, and newly arrived junior agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), believe they’ve failed. But since their detainees are in confinement with no access to actual news, and are already sleep deprived, they cleverly decide to blur reality by rewarding them for supposedly providing helpful information that prevented the attacks, offering food as a gesture of good faith while continuing to prod them for more specific details, suggesting their fictitious cooperation helped save lives. Overseen by CIA station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), we soon learn this is a different kind of war where we’re actually operating in very murky waters. Sifting through the false leads where lies often reveal more than the truth, as lies are used to protect something vitally important, Maya sits in front of multiple computer screens evaluating hundreds of similar interrogation interviews, coldly ignoring streaming footage of terrorist explosions that the audience sees, hoping to find some shred of evidence leading them back to the “big man.” What Maya quickly learns is the CIA is a male dominated culture that plants headlines, that leads the public into believing whatever the government thinks it needs to hear, where stopping bombers before they attack makes big headlines, while steadfastly matching up names with clues offers some potential degree of success down the road, but doesn’t pack the immediate punch they’re looking for.
Much of the beginning shows an aimless pattern of shifting allegiances and intelligence priorities, where as soon as Maya is onto something, her superiors are no longer paying attention, as their interest lies elsewhere. No longer focused on bin Laden, they’re instead caught up in new developments, which include taking political cover over the discovery of American atrocities in Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, where several superiors have taken the fall. Bigelow shows an often confused picture of muddled bureaucratic disinterest, with every segment coded in military vernacular, where the audience may have a difficult time following just what’s going on, until a random televised speech by newly elected President Obama brings an end to their interrogating methods. It’s only at this moment, where Maya’s targeted focus continues to be tracking down bin Laden and killing him, cutting off the head of al Qaeda, which like a laser beam, brings the entire picture into focus through the developments of her character. Despite all the other power plays and political shenanigans, which continue under Obama, funding for her requested Pakistani surveillance details are not forthcoming, where she’s attempting to track down bin Laden’s own personal courier, his most trusted aide that connects him to his operations around the world even as he remains secluded. No one except Maya believes this is vital intelligence, as the courier is not connected to any potential terrorist act. As everyone in the picture is abandoning interest in her lead, still looking for the more glamorous headline stories, she has to literally threaten and coerce her boss, Joseph Bradley, into action, as otherwise she’d be relegated to the backrooms somewhere as a forgotten entity, an ancient relic. Actually shot in Jordan, Afghanistan, and some mobile units in Pakistan, this picks up the adrenaline-laced intensity of the film, as the operations in the food bazaars and overcrowded streets of Pakistan are so much more dangerously riveting than similar scenes in Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012), where they’re able to tap the phone of the courier using the cell tower signal, but they continuously lose him in his constant street movement, where they can’t predict his behavior, but come tantalizingly close sometimes until finally they get a photograph, which for Maya, is like an answered prayer.
When they’re able to trace the courier to a heavily fortified compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, for Maya, this is instant paydirt, but for the rest of the intelligence community, they need more, still speculating on what it all means, using satellite imagery to determine how many people can be seen, also confirming that one man is never seen and never leaves the compound. When the CIA Director (James Gandolfini as Leon Panetta) reviews what they have, examining a replicated structure on a table, Maya can’t even sit at the main table with the men, and must take a chair in the back of the room. When the Director asks who she is, Maya answers defiantly, “I’m the motherfucker who found this place!” Later, when the President is actually considering his options, the Director and Maya have a curiously amusing conversation, as due to confidentiality, they can’t actually talk about anything that they’re working on, so they have little to say, which speaks volumes. But apparently the CIA recruited her out of high school. All of this meticulously accumulated background information reveals next to nothing about any of the significant characters in the intelligence community, which is the way it should be working in such a shadowy environment where personal lives are routinely sacrificed for obsessive detail in their work, where they are literally married to the job. At about the 2-hour mark, they’re given the go ahead to send in the Canaries, as they’re called, as they still don’t know what to expect inside the compound, all except Maya who is 100% certain bin Laden is there, but she’s the only one. Her confidence is enough for the SEALS, however, who barely bat an eye, as the depiction of this highly select military personnel is almost casual, where they’re really the last in a long line of secret operatives, where they may personify the guts and glory, but really they’re just the mop up crew. Somebody else had to figure it all out.
Shown in real time, taking a little less than the actual operation itself, the Navy SEALS put on their night vision goggles and carry out the mission, seen in a green light, where they have to use explosives to get through half a dozen heavily fortified iron doors. Inside is mayhem—men, women, and children, many screaming, several of whom are killed. For these guys, it’s just doing their jobs, painstakingly sweeping room by room, floor by floor, shooting anyone who doesn’t immediately surrender, overwhelming the enemy by superior numbers and firepower, also having to think on their feet, as those guarding the outer perimeter are perhaps most at risk, as the surrounding neighborhood gets suspicious when a helicopter goes down and crashes inside the walls of the compound, and more helicopters keep buzzing around overhead, waiting to pick up the SEALS once the mission is over. Everything is timed like clockwork, where they get in and get out in about 25 minutes. This revelatory sequence is the centerpiece of the film. Even knowing the eventual outcome, it’s loaded with tension and suspense, where dressed in their gear they resemble an astronaut mission to Mars, as it has an otherworldly quality about it, like something seen in a John Carpenter movie, yet it proceeds with caution and thoughtful rationale, every movement measured until it is done. When they return and Maya (known by the SEALS as “the girl”) identifies the body as bin Laden, it’s only then that you start to wonder who is this force behind the operation? Is it a fictitious person or is it real? Known only under the code name “Jen” in No Easy Day, Maya is based on a real and still-active agent working for the CIA, the kind of person who, if you talked to her, wouldn’t really have much of anything to say, an anomaly that’s likely never received this much exposure. Enjoy it while you can, unsparing as it is, minimalist, stripped down, and increasingly suspenseful, as it’s as close to the real thing as you’re going to find. She apparently got a cash bonus when the mission was successful and the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, but missed out on a promotion, perhaps because of an alienating email she sent out to the entire agency reminding them how they fought and obstructed her every step of the way. Her colleagues are supposedly envious of all the Hollywood attention she has received. Remember, in the male dominated intelligence community, the big honchos are the ones that are supposed to be making the headlines, not “the girl” that no one believed.