It’s not about politics. It’s not about racism. And it definitely is not about justice for all.
Zero Dark Thirty is about one thing - a man hunt - and that man is Osama bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) successfully took nearly a decade of research and whittled it down to give viewers, in my opinion, an authentic portrayal of the greatest man hunt in American history.
The film wastes no time in getting to the nitty-gritty. Opening in Pakistan at a Black Site, Dan (Jason Clarke), a CIA agent, introduces Maya (Jessica Chastain), a newly assigned CIA agent, to the interrogation process.
It only takes a few minutes before Dan water boards a detainee and later pulls his pants down, displaying the fecal stains on his buttocks. This is just an example of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that the CIA and lawmakers criticize the film as being inaccurate and misleading.
What I like to remember when watching a film that is “based on real events” is that it is only “based” on those events, not a total factual representation. Most people, Americans especially, have no idea what went into finding bin Laden. The media was the only source of information, offering minor details generally centered on the political elements.
Zero Dark Thirty offers the audience a chance to understand the efforts taken to find bin Laden and honors those who spent years doing just that. Bigelow stated in the past that her goal was to “capture the essence of the underlying reality,” not make a documentary of it.
The film’s first 30 minutes are filled with CIA jargon and a mess of words that I had a hard time following. I feared being incapable of understanding what was going on throughout the film, but at the same time I enjoyed that Bigelow and Boal did not “dumb down” the film for the average American. The scenes depicted felt true and as close to reality as possible.
The majority of the film follows Maya as she hunts for bin Laden and fights to prove that he is holed up in a compound in Pakistan. Chastain offers an honest portrayal of a woman dedicated solely to her job, lacking certain social skills and any real happiness. In one scene, Maya is out with a female coworker who must remind her that they are at the restaurant to relax, not work. It is only a few seconds later that the restaurant is bombed and the audience is reminded that nothing about the hunt is relaxing.
The climax of the film reaches its peak in the final 30 minutes, or the raid on bin Laden. Maya is given the go-ahead to follow her instinct.
We are introduced to the Navy SEALs sent out to do the job. It all feels rather Hollywood with the helicopters swooping in on the compound and an unexpected crash landing, but the mood changes when the raid begins.
Most of the raid is shot through night vision goggles, which all the SEALs are wearing. It is hard to make out faces and images, just as it should be because what really went on in the compound cannot be factually restaged. But the idea, the feeling, the fear are all present and that’s what matters. I surprised myself in reaction to bin Laden’s death, as I am not a fan of murder, regardless of the person. Yet the minute he was killed, the American in me breathed a sigh of relief and glory. I am not sure if it was for America or for Maya.
Zero Dark Thirty is an impressive and extremely well made film based on real events. It is not intended to be a history lesson. No one knows every detail of what occurred in the decade following the 9/11 attacks. Boal’s screenplay offers a respectful view of what may have happened and invites the audience to take what they like and leave the rest.