Only around 18 months after Osama bin Laden’s capture and killing in Pakistan, the story of that manhunt comes to the big screen, from the people who brought you The Hurt Locker. With the dust barely settled on this chapter of history, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal (again, up for Oscars) take on a heavy burden, to deliver an accurate account of that CIA mission while moving to the beat of a compelling spy thriller. For the most part, they do just that.
Their commitment to the truth is spelled out from the start, in black and white, with a declaration that the following is ‘based on first-hand accounts’. Still, nearly a decade’s worth of intelligence work is compressed in a sort of join-the-dots exercise of vital turning points, beginning, unflinchingly, with the torture of one of bin Laden’s nephews Ammar (Reda Kateb). Scenes reminiscent of the Abu Ghraib scandal have already sparked enormous controversy around the film, with Republican politicians like John McCain refuting the endorsement of such interrogation tactics and human rights watchers claiming that the film seeks to justify their use.
However, there is a moral compass to this story. Jessica Chastain spearheads the campaign to bring down bin Laden as Maya, a CIA operative based on a real person (names have been changed) but she also buries herself beneath the weight of enemy bodies. Chastain gives a delicately judged performance, standing tightly wound at the back of the room while her colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) inflicts all sorts of pain on Ammar, reluctantly fetching the bucket for waterboarding. Even so, when left alone with the prisoner (stripped and strung from the ceiling), she refuses to help, insisting he can only help himself by talking. If her own heart bleeds, she treats this as just another war wound.
Vital information, brutally gleaned, sets Maya on a more determined path and the film – unevenly paced up to this point – moves faster, and with more purpose. She aims to find the courier that is bin Laden’s connection to the outside world, certain that he is hiding out, not in a cave, but in a populated area. Her strong intuition (backed by mere scraps of evidence) sets Maya apart from her male peers as well as her boss (Kyle Chandler) who struggles to justify the expenditure on what may be a wild goose chase. Maya is a lone wolf and while Dan offers some support, he gets to the point of nervous exhaustion, complaining of having ‘seen too many guys naked’. His conscience eats away at him to the extent that he gives up life in the field for a desk in Washington.
Before leaving, Dan cautions Maya against losing herself to the dogged pursuit of bin Laden and her lack of a personal life is noted by another female agent (a spirited turn by Jennifer Ehle). Maya bats off her suggestion that she should seduce Dan as ‘unbecoming’, which speaks of her great professionalism, but also snuffs out any expectations viewers might have that she’ll drop her guard. A suicide bombing that hits close to home cements Maya’s will and as more explosions rock other cities around the world (including a recreation of London’s 7/7 bombings), she shows fewer chinks in the armour. She stands up against her doubters and demands action after pinpointing a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan as bin Laden’s hideout.
Naturally, the higher-ups in DC want assurances before they send troops in on the ground and risk destabilising an already fragile accord with Pakistan. At this point, the matter of whether Maya is right or wrong breeds little suspense, just as the outcome of the mission is never in doubt. And yet, the film is taut, bristling with tension and morbidly fascinating, because there may be nothing left of Maya before it’s all over. There is a real sense that even bin Laden’s scalp will not be enough to put her mind at ease – not after the things she has witnessed, and been a part of. When Washington finally gives the green light for the raid in Abbottabad, the overriding feeling is of relief, not triumph.
With the finale Bigelow, as she did in The Hurt Locker (and in other films before that), shows a deft feel for the testosterone-fuelled angst that underlies the violence. It starts eerily with helicopters weaving low between mountains in the dead of night (‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is military speak for half-past-midnight), filmed with the grainy, green tinge of night-vision. Soldiers stream into the compound which is all tiny rooms and tight corners in a maze-like construction, moving fast yet treading carefully, with occasional bursts of machine gun fire. Women and children tumble out of the dark, heightening the nervousness, until finally the target is found and that tension, released.
Bigelow and Boal have faced a similarly visceral reaction from those who say the film works towards validating torture tactics. But for years, before bin Laden was killed, the film was in development with a different ending, one that still mightn’t have satisfied those critics and which might have been less appealing to US moviegoers (especially that crucial Mid-West demographic). But those flag-waving Americans who have flocked to see it may also have been surprised by the muted conclusion, when Maya is left alone wondering where to go from here. In the context of this film, the question of whether the end justifies the means remains academic in view of the fact that Bigelow and Boal did not get to decide the ending, but what they do put across, powerfully – without standing on a soapbox – is that it’s never over, when blood is on your hands, it can never be washed away.
Read our interview with Zero Dark Thirty screenwriter Mark Boal