As I walked into the theater to watch Zero Dark Thirty, I was joined by people from all walks of life. There were wives in fashionable outfits, a large group of young men, a few in military attire and middle-aged couples with big guts. There were all races spread through the theater. There was even a boy no older than ten, shocking considering the realism and torture scenes. All these different people were together, and I would assume from the way the film has been advertised many of them for a film about taking Osama Bin Laden down, but I’m not sure if they expected how it was presented.
Directed by Katharyn Bigelow, the film follows a CIA operative’s search for Osama Bin Laden after the terrorist attacks of 9-11. We watch from 2002 to 2011 as Maya (Jessica Chastain) aids and then leads the search. She starts out on the hard stuff, aiding in the torture of detainees. Between sleep deprivation and water-boarding she and Dan (Jason Clarke) ruthlessly bombard prisoners with questions on the whereabouts of Bin Laden and his messengers. When those methods are no longer allowed, Maya’s job is brought to a desk where her information is brought over phones, from third parties and moves much slower. But when one key piece of information is brought into focus, the whereabouts of Bin Laden are more probable. There is no way to know for sure if they have found his location, unless action is taken. And Maya is the force behind making sure it happens.
As Maya and her co-workers inch closer to Bin Laden, we are steadily pulled in as well. Many times, I feel that this sort of military/intelligence film gets boring or just loses me in all the red tape, but I found Zero Dark Thirty more and more compelling every minute. There is a good mix of narrative, visual storytelling, action and our heroine is a force that refuses to quit.
Jessica Chastain presents Maya as strong and smart woman who will not be held back. We watch nearly a decade of her young adult life go by, completely dedicated to finding Bin Laden. The film doesn’t show Maya ever having fun on the town, on dates or having any real personal relationships, and we assume there isn’t time for them in her life. Many may see Maya’s role more suited for a man, but the character is based off an actual female CIA agent who is presently undercover. No matter how true to life Chastain brings her character, I believe her nomination for best actress is well deserved.
The action in this film is more realistic and less Hollywood than I think most people expected. The torture is gritty and can be hard to watch. Terrorist attacks are genuinely frightening, chaotic and that one big boom really catches us off guard, just like it’s supposed to. And while watching Seal Team 6 in action may sound like a young boy’s fantasy, we’re reminded that this isn’t Call of Duty. The Seals move carefully, try to get in and out quickly and professionally. And there seems to be a sever lack of heroism telling a room of crying children that everything is okay when you just killed their parents.
Like I said, in my screening, I saw the whole spectrum, like a little America, in the theater. However, by the end of the film is a feeling that I’m not sure any of us were ready for. We see Maya in tears, her work of nearly ten years finally complete, but what does she do now? Even harder to ask is was it all worth it? While I don’t doubt that ridding the world of this terrorist leader was a good thing, this feels like a hollow victory, especially for Maya personally. It took ten years to take out one man, how many decades do our agents have to sacrifice to get it done?
“You can help yourself by being truthful.”