The controversial Zero Dark Thirty is an interesting film on many levels. Whether looking at the claim to be based on actual accounts of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the cries of pro-Obama propaganda, or the unapologetic depictions of torture. Now we could have an interesting discussion about the morality of those things today, but I’m really here just to discuss my reaction to this film as a film. Is it art? Is it propaganda? Is it immoral? I really don’t care, I just wanted to see an interesting movie, and in the end I did.
Unless you’re new to this world we live in, you’ve probably heard about this film, or at least the subject matter. We have the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden, and the ‘War on Terror’. Starting in 2003 we follow the point of view of Maya, a CIA agent who has been working on al-Qaeda related intelligence. She was recently assigned to a ‘CIA Black Site’ which is basically a place where they held prisoners to extract intelligence, in many cases using torture as we see in great detail. Over the course of the next eight years, roughly, we follow her career as she attempts to track down Osama bin Laden.
A particularly interesting facet of this film is that it is very grueling to watch, but can still be completely enthralling. I suspect that if it were dealing with wholly fictional subject matter, many of the primary plot points would be old hat: Maya’s obsessive tendencies, her growing alienation from ‘normal’ people, and the seemingly endless chain of setbacks. It’s all very ‘tense espionage thriller’ only without as many thrills. Because it attempts, to some degree, to follow real events the narrative is constrained and doesn’t spoon feed us the tasty thrills we expect. As something of a fan of the genre, the pacing was close enough to a ‘normal’ espionage thriller to be exciting, but different enough to be attention grabbing.
Okay, let’s talk about the pay off. What’s that? It’s the strike against Osama bin Laden at the very end of the film. Yes, I guess I might be spoiling something for all two of you who don’t remember all the news about killing Osama bin Laden, just like some of you probably complained about Titanic reviews that mentioned the ship sinking. The film’s climax covers the special forces strike against the ‘compound’ where Osama bin Laden was hiding. For action fans it’s a let down, yes we do get some gunfire and even some explosions, but it violates one cardinal rule of action flicks. The ‘heroes’ are not going up against a superior force. Our highly trained SEAL team is going up against three guys relaxing at home with their wives and children. Some unsavory things go down in this raid, and are presented in a very matter-of-fact manner. Much like the torture earlier in the film.
Basically, this film boils down to that expression, matter-of-fact. Or maybe you could say ‘professional’. The emotional gravitas comes from Maya’s journey and sacrifices, but the film does not even attempt to instruct the audience on the moral implications of torture or assassination. Some people will find that repellant, but for me that is what made the film engaging. Call me crazy, but I like the chance to judge for myself whether something is right or wrong, and it’s nice to have a film that allows for that. Can torture be justified? Is it acceptable to send a group of special forces into a home with the express intent to kill, not capture? Most movies would try to answer those questions. Zero Dark Thirty is not the answer, it is the question, and that’s why I liked it. Go see it and judge for yourself.