Faith & Film: Zero Dark Thirty

I joked with friends that I had to gear myself up to see the new critically acclaimed film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, “Zero Dark Thirty.” If you’ve read my reviews before, you know that I don’t do well with ultra-violent movies. (Don’t expect me to review Tarrantino’s “Django Unchained”!) In addition, I remember well my experience seeing the previous collaboration between director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, “The Hurt Locker.” While I admired the film, I was emotionally exhausted after two hours of watching soldiers disarm bombs in Iraq. It was not an experience I was eager to repeat!

So I psyched myself up for the new two hour 40-minute film by Bigelow and Boal. I’m happy to report that I’m very glad I did. I found “Zero Dark Thirty” to be an amazing experience. The movie opens with an homage to Sept. 11, with an imaginative and effective use of recorded voices against a black screen. The audience hears only real voices of people on planes and on the ground, with no visuals. From then on, Bigelow and Boal take us on the 10-year hunt for bin Laden, with many frustrations and disappointments along the way. The movie also says at the beginning that it is based on factual events, a claim that has been disputed by many in intelligence.

The movie centers on the character of Maya, a red-haired CIA agent whose mission is to get bin Laden. Played with ferocious intensity by Jessica Chastain, Maya is a composite character, based on many other agents. We know nothing about Maya, her family or marital status, not even her last name. All we know is that she is a woman on a mission, and nothing distracts her from that.

You’ve probably heard by now that the movie contains scenes of torture by Americans, including water-boarding. These scenes are very disturbing, and difficult to watch. These scenes are the most controversial part of the movie. Critics of the movie have said that Bigelow emphasized the torture scenes in order to make a case for the necessity of torture to gain information about the whereabouts of bin Laden. Others protest that the types of torture shown, including the deprivation of sleep and light, were not used. As the film begins, the audience is told that the film is based on “firsthand accounts of actual events.” I have no way of knowing whether these torture scenes are factual or exaggerated. My take is that Bigelow and Boal included them to re-start the debate about torture. Is it ever acceptable? Even when it could lead to the capture of the man who killed thousands of innocent civilians? They’re not afraid to push the envelope with the hard questions.

I also believe that in the early scenes, Maya is a stand-in for the audience. Maya witnesses the torture scenes, even when she’s told she doesn’t have to. She’s clearly very uncomfortable, but does not turn away. Like Maya, we watch, even thought it’s uncomfortable, but we don’t turn away. Eventually she cooperates to a lesser extent in the torture. Have we cooperated by our silence in the debate on torture?

Much of the movie follows leads to track a suspected courier of bin Laden through Pakistan to bin Laden’s hideout. These scenes through the streets of Pakistani cities are very exciting. Bigelow and Boal balance those scenes with scenes of scenes of boring CIA meetings and bureaucracy. The final 40 minutes is a suspenseful re-enactment of the storming of bin Laden’s hideout by the Navy Seals. It’s amazingly filmed in near darkness.

I was concerned that “Zero Dark Thirty” would be excessively violent. Yes, there is violence, but I don’t think it’s excessive, considering the subject matter of the film. Bombs explode suddenly, people are shot. The film does not glory in violence but does not shrink from the violence that is a necessary part of the hunt for bin Laden.

Bigelow does an amazing job as director of “Zero Dark Thirty.” Even though the movie is long, it is never dull. In one of the best scenes, Maya and a friend are meeting in the restaurant of a hotel in Pakistan, when there’s a deafening explosion of a bomb. I almost jumped out of my seat! After seeing the movie, I was astonished to realize that Bigelow did not receive an Oscar nomination for best director! Boal did receive a deserved nomination as screenwriter, bringing together a huge amount of material into a succinct narrative.

So I’m glad I geared myself up for “Zero Dark Thirty.” It takes a deserved place with two other fine films this year, all nominated for best picture, telling true stories of American history: “Lincoln” and “Argo.” Of the three, I think “Zero Dark Thirty” is the most unsettling, because the events of the story were so recent. As in the final scene of the movie, Maya sits alone on a huge airplane, ready to return to the United States. The look on her face seems to suggest ambiguity. Maya is relieved, but not jubilant. Was it all worth it?

The climactic events of the film took place less than two years ago. We don’t have the distance to assess the events portrayed in this film, which make it harder to judge the use of torture, as well as the decision to assassinate a terrorist, rather than bring him to trial. We may want to be let off the hook and put it all behind us. “Zero Dark Thirty” won’t let us. I think it’s a movie that will be debated for years to come.

Tom Condon, OP