Review: Zero Dark Thirty

By on January 28, 2013

If, like my wife, you’re hesitant to see Zero Dark Thirty because you’ve heard the first 45 minutes consist of scenes of torturous interrogations, don’t be. It’s really all quite watchable and only made her cover her eyes once when the prisoner is stuffed into a dark, scary, and tiny box. My wife is most claustrophobic you see. And those early scenes aren’t even so much about torture as they are about how the main character, Maya (Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain), is gradually drawn into an active role in the interrogations.

As we are informed up front, the movie tells a story ripped from current events over the past decade and is based on first person testimony. This means it’s a “true” story, embellished by screenwriters well aware that real life needs a lot of nudging to fit into the sort of perfect dramatic arcs that are necessary for movies. It also means that it’s a story where I don’t need to be on high spoiler avoidance alert. It’s about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his eventual finding and killing by a team of Navy SEALs. We see a long hunt for him, he is found, and he is killed. The weird bit about Bin Laden’s body being dumped in the middle of the ocean isn’t included.

Waiting for the movie to start, my wife asked what sort of movie I was hoping it would be—I think she was still dreading the torture ahead and was making nervous small talk. I said, “I hope the movie will be a good, interesting procedural like they used to make back in those previous politically troubled times of the 1970s, such as All the President’s Men.  I love movies that explain how something was done in meticulous detail. Here, as with Watergate, we know how the story will end. All the pleasure is in the telling.” She should know by now to always count on me for such a boring answer. But, I’m happy to say, my hopes came true.

Having dinner afterwards, she pulled up a Rolling Stone interview with director Kathryn Bigelow and started reading point after interesting point about the factual basis for the character of Maya, but I insisted that it doesn’t really matter, even though the factual accuracy or inaccuracy of the movie must be raising much faux news chatter. The character of Maya is clearly a composite of many characters and has been skillfully crafted to create an arc from reluctance to dead serious commitment, all motivated by the violent death of her best friend (a character also largely invented, I imagine).

My wife was disappointed when Maya shows a moment of weakness and resignation at the end. Maya even sheds a tear as she sits alone, so painfully and pointedly alone. Her character had been so strong throughout. I thought it was the best moment in the movie, the moment that justified the movie. Her first scene shows her reacting to the scenes of torture with: “What am I seeing?” Her final expression is one of “What have I done?”

I’ve always been more than a bit troubled by how blood-thirsty America became over the idea of killing Bin Laden and how far out of character I felt it carried President Obama to be forced into the role of vigilante in chief. Other than some sort of national catharsis, what did we really gain? Al-Qaeda still exists, certainly fueled all the more now with such a high profile martyr. Were all those billions of dollars well spent? Are we safer?

By portraying Maya as a woman who finally goes all-in to hunt down and kill Bin Laden after the death of her close friend, the movie quite brilliantly takes the American desire and makes it personal. And, when Maya sits tearfully alone at the end, my feelings of “was it all worth it” seemed to fill the screen. She got revenge. She got catharsis. But she’ll still never see her friend ever again.

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