I wasn’t sure, while watching Zero Dark Thirty, that it really worked as a movie.
Not that it’s not good—it’s downright riveting for most of its two-plus-hour running time. But its vignette-like structure—complete with occasionally cryptic intertitles—doesn’t fall within what most mainstream audiences understand of the traditional filmic narrative. At times, it can’t quite seem to decide if it wants to be a documentary-style direct-cinema venture, or a gritty thriller.
That vignette structure breaks down somewhat at the end; the last thirty to forty minutes of the movie chronicles the night assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and is practically a separate movie in and of itself.
But that’s the film’s high point—hell, it’s what the audience has paid to see. And on that, it delivers. Shot largely in “nightvision,” the sequence is almost intimate in its cinematography and sound design, right down to the eerie whispers from the SEALs trying to draw out their targets. It’s more remarkable for its silence than its sound.
Also fascinating are the depictions of two separate terror attacks: One comes out of nowhere—literally in the middle of a sentence—while the other is a long, slow build that you watch, fingers white-knuckled, because you know exactly how the scene’s going to play out. It’s a textbook example of surprises versus suspense, and it’s clear that director Kathryn Bigelow’s got chops for both.
While the film’s fairly light on character, it’s anchored by a very strong performance from Jessica Chastain, the CIA agent whose single-minded devotion is at the heart of the film. The rest of the cast is largely peopled by a revolving door of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearances from character actors. I kept nudging my viewing companion and pointing out faces like Harold Perrineau (Lost), Stephen Dillane (Game of Thrones), John Barrowman (Torchwood), Mark Duplass (Safety Not Guaranteed), Christopher Stanley (Mad Men), and Mark Valley (Human Target), among others.
As for the criticism leveled against the film, anybody who argues that Zero Dark Thirty is a pro-torture movie isn’t reading closely enough. Yes, torture is part of this movie, and yes, it’s not pretty—it’s torture, people. But the argument that the movie somehow legitimizes torture by showing it leading to results just isn’t correct: The first time that the CIA actually acquires any useful information in the film, it’s because they bluff a prisoner into believing that he’s already given up the goods. While feeding him and offering him a cigarette.
The acting CIA director and top senators—including John McCain—have stated that the film is misleading and that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were not the bulk of what actually led to finding Bin Laden. But the fact remains that they have long been part of the equation in our military and intelligence apparatuses. We may not be proud of what we have done, but we should be even less proud of pretending that it didn’t happen.
Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a rah-rah patriotic movie. The reaction from the SEAL who actually kills Bin Laden isn’t a gauche fist bump, but rather a sort of quiet befuddlement. (“I shot the third floor guy,” is his shocked explanation to one of his buddies.) When the eventual war whoop of success does come—after the SEAL team’s made it home—it’s cringeworthy in its accuracy. Yeah, Bin Laden’s the bad guy, but celebrating the killing of a man still resonates with awkwardness.
During the movie’s conclusion—and even afterwards—my thoughts kept dwelling on the children that the SEAL team comes across in Bin Laden’s compound: What are the odds, I wondered, that one or more of them grow up hating Americans for what they did to their families? Will one of them be the next Bin Laden? Have we just perpetuated the cycle? Where does it end?
And that’s perhaps part of what makes this film so unsettling. It’s been just eighteen months since the events on which this movie was based—we know how the movie ends, but we don’t really know how the story turns out. We’re not viewing at a remove of decades, as in the case of an Apollo 13 or an Argo. In thirty years, maybe we’ll get the Argo version of these events: the sensitive details will finally be made public, and the characters will instead become actual people.
But real life doesn’t always follow narrative convention—and that’s why Zero Dark Thirty does ultimately work, even if it’s not an easy-to-parse, traditional war movie. Its bite-size chunks and “ripped from the headlines” genesis are reflective of this age of instant communications and social networking, and its ethos of faster, quicker, sooner. Though there have already been movies detailing the conflicts of the past decade, I think we’ll look back upon Zero Dark Thirty as a war movie that’s emblematic of the 21st century—not just about its era, but truly of it as well.