It was a great and dreadful day in American history. A man was dead, hunted down and executed in his own home in front of his wife and children without extradition, trial, or sentence. The news was greeted in America by rejoicing. Within hours the terrain from Times Square to Ground Zero was the site of a boisterous springtime New Year’s Eve party, filled with people whooping, cheering, and singing American anthems. My daughter and her husband were among them. Osama bin Laden was dead.
Zero Dark Thirty is an intense, gripping film about the decade-long hunt for bin Laden. It is surprisingly apolitical, presenting the facts of the story in an evenhanded way. The film is told through the perspective of the young CIA agent (Jessica Chastain), identified only as "Maya," who tenaciously investigated a particular lead until she discovered convincing evidence of where bin Laden was living — not in isolated wilderness caves, as we had been led to believe, but in a well-protected compound in the middle of a large city.
That "particular lead" was uncovered through "enhanced interrogation," a sanitized phrase for what amounts to little less than torture. As the film opens, Dan (Jason Clark), an American "intelligence officer," is using severe tactics to elicit the date, time, and location of an expected terrorist attack from a detainee (Reda Kateb). The detainee's face is badly bruised, and he is clearly in distress. Over the next few days he is chained, threatened, thrown around, waterboarded, deprived of sleep, and enclosed in a tiny box. As he resists, Dan tells him, "When you lie, I have to hurt you." Dan appears to enjoy his work.
Watching a man wearing an American uniform inflict torture and humiliation on another human feels shameful. Isn't that what the bad guys do? Isn't that what we go to war to prevent? I understand the argument that "enhanced interrogation" techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and music torture instill fear without causing actual injury; I recognize that breaking bones and cutting off fingers is worse. If there can be such a thing as "humane torture," the American intelligence community seems to have discovered it. Nevertheless, it still feels wrong, and degrading to the Americans who inflict it.
The next scene brings a different perspective. A group of al Qaeda terrorists opens fire on dozens of non-Muslims and Americans in a public mall, gunning them down mercilessly. Suddenly, getting that vital information from the detainee seems worth any cost in human dignity. Director Kathryn Bigelow provides many similar juxtapositions in the film, demonstrating the difficulty of finding the moral high ground, let alone maintaining it.
Watching a man wearing an American uniform inflict torture and humiliation on another human feels shameful. Isn't that what the bad guys do? Isn't that what we go to war to prevent?
Maya is convinced that someone named Abu Ahmed knows where bin Laden is hiding, based on information gleaned from several detainees who have mentioned this name. Others, however, believe that Ahmed is dead and the lead is a dead end. Much of the film focuses on Maya's indefatigable hunt for this mysterious Abu Ahmed, and her determination to continue with the lead even after her superiors have told her to move on.
Although Zero Dark Thirty is set in a war zone and culminates in an intense 25-minute raid on bin Laden’s compound, this is not a traditional war or spy movie. It is not about big burly men carrying big burly weapons, although there are plenty of big burly men in the cast. But in this film the military and the intelligence community play supporting roles. It is really Maya's story, and in a way it is Bigelow's story too — Maya is a woman working in what is traditionally a man's world, and she manages to pull off the coup of the century. (Bigelow was the first woman to earn an Oscar as Best Director, for her film The Hurt Locker , beating out the front runner Avatar, which was directed by her former husband, superstar James Cameron.) Maya is amazingly young, too, to have this much grit and authority. Recruited by the CIA just out of high school, she is in her twenties as she tracks down her lead.
The film ends with success — the Mountie gets her man — but it does not end with triumph. Too many people have been killed, and too much hatred continues to exist, to suggest that the killing of bin Laden was much more than a symbolic gesture. But it is a powerful film, one that will keep you thinking and talking for a long time. It is likely to garner many well-deserved nominations as this awards season heats up.