Movie Review: ZERO DARK THIRTY – A Film For The Ages
Right off the bat, I must admit that as a filmmaker, I am completely jealous of ZERO DARK THIRTY’S great Director Kathryn Bigelow. As an American, I am completely thankful that I didn’t get anywhere near directing this film. For Ms. Bigelow and her screenwriter and Producing partner, Mark Boal, have forged together a masterpiece and we’d be hard pressed to find a better filmmaking team for a film such as this.
The story, even though many may know of it, seems as fresh today as it did when it all occurred. Beginning on September 11th, 2001, ZERO DARK THIRTY cinematically carries us through the nearly ten years from when our Intelligence Community was seemingly building a dossier from scratch to finding, trapping and killing Osama Bin Laden – the most wanted and dangerous man in the world.
Having more than a few family members in or retired from the U.S. Military, I am used to hearing complaints of “they didn’t get this or that right.” A movie such as this is a work of story-telling and serious story-compression. All I can say is that I think my family members and those in the service of our Country (present and past) will be very happy with this film and proud of the results.
The filmmakers and all associated with ZERO DARK THIRTY nailed it and nailed it well. At no point did I feel that they cheated on the story or slanted something to favor one political outlook over another. The only nods to President Obama or President Bush are via flashes of television footage in the background to help show the passage of time while we are on this ten-year journey of justice and redemption. I say redemption as some in our Intelligence Community felt that they failed in stopping 9/11. After successful finding and eliminating Osama Bin Laden, hopefully many feelings of failure have been washed away.
I don’t want to tell you too much about ZERO DARK THIRTY as I want you to experience it for yourself. However, as a filmmaker, I feel very fortunate that I was able to see the film a few weeks ago. Realizing that as the calendar moves closer to ZERO DARK THIRTY’s release date, there will be some in our Media who will try to twist this great tale of bravery, fortitude, ingenuity, persistence and sacrifice into something that it is not. There is no political spin with this film and both Rush Limbaugh and Chris Matthews should be rooting for this film to win an Oscar or ten. No one can really complain about this film, except maybe the Script Supervisor who had to keep track of all the characters and story threads we come across in what is ultimately, a large-scale personal film in many ways. Filmed in India and Jordan, as well as the U.S., the film brings you so inside the manhunt that you almost feel as if you are going down each dark alley, chasing each lead and feeling the CIA Team’s frustration at every turn. You will probably hold your breath several times during its 157 minute running time.
The film’s casting was exemplary and the actors help to make ZERO DARK THIRTY an almost intimate experience. Chances were taken in some roles and they paid off handsomely. For example, Australia’s Jason Clarke (in his first major film role and opens the film) plays “Dan” who is “Maya’s” CIA Mentor/Partner on the Team. Edgar Ramirez (Carlos from CARLOS THE JACKAL) gives grit to his portrayal of a wearying field agent in Pakistan. James Gandolfini’s portrayal of CIA Director Leon Panetta was spot-on and subtlety adds much uncertain tension to the story. But, this film is built by and for “Maya.”
“Maya” who is ZERO DARK THIRTY’s main character (we never learn her last name) is introduced to us as a “Killer” before her first post-9/11 interrogation when the Bin Laden leads were thin and the future most bleak. “Dan” the first CIA Agent we meet in the film quickly educates us as to how cold the Bin Laden trail is after 9/11 and where he and “Maya” may have to go to find him. The “Maya” character (as played by the amazing Jessica Chastain) represents the best, most talented of us and the jaundiced innocence with which we entered this new world that al Qaeda created. She knows what she is about to get into, but not the difficulties and the depths of focus she must reach to “finish the mission.” “Maya” is a sympathetic character and she is the vessel for our journey through ZERO DARK THIRTY.
The Media may be all aflutter with the already infamous “water board scene,” but I believe that Audiences will be more interested in “Maya’s” reactions to the Water Boarding/Torture/Enhanced Interrogation Methods than be enamored by what is shown on screen. If you’ve seen SYRIANA, HOMELAND or TAKEN, you’ll be prepared. Some critics are strenuously trying to push the idea that the “water boarding scene” will convince innocent people that we caught/killed Osama Bin Laden solely due to the methods that were employed. Respectfully, nothing could be further from the case. I would argue that ZERO DARK THIRTY portrayed these scenes fairly and accurately, both in what happened and what amount of information was received which ultimately helped in the manhunt. Based on the incredible research that Mark Boal and Katherine Bigelow conducted for this film, I believe that this was all done within context and with first-hand sourcing. Yes, some may come away saying that torture or “Enhanced Interrogation Methods” were successful (as they were employed on just three terrorists) but they will not walk away believing these methods were the only reason Bin Laden is dead. The film spends a great deal of time showing us how much “gum-shoe” sleuthing, focused analysis and experienced instinct were involved.
In the eyes of this filmmaker, with several days of reflection, “Maya” may be real or may be a composite character – but no doubt is left that she is an American and she is one of “Us”. “Us” as in a nation that wants to and needs to complete its mission, but is unsure of how it will all turn out or if it will turn out our way. “Maya”, over this ten-year period, may not be the John Wayne or James Bond-type of character that we have known cinematically. But in real life, she and people like her will likely be what ultimately keeps the wolves at bay. We may not know for some time exactly what happened or the how or the why from September, 2001 to May, 2010. And there may be those of us who do not care to know. That may be understandable. However, ZERO DARK THIRTY makes a strong case that we should know what happened, how it happened, why it happened and how we must never forget that it happened. Not for revenge or regret, but so that we may also know of the well of sacrifice we may need to tap again someday and so we may be better prepared going forward. For good and bad.
Truth is always stranger than fiction and when politics are potentially involved, truth usually doesn’t win out. In this case, truth (or as close as we civilians will ever see it) wins out and the results are astonishing. Don’t worry Conservatives, any fears of a very pro-Obama treatment of the hunt and killing of Osama Bin Laden” are unfounded and all can be relieved. Meanwhile, Liberal fears of the film defending the Bush Administration’s approval of Enhanced Interrogation Methods (EIM) which were not an issue before the Election… seem to be developing into a BIG issue after the Election. Frankly, I don’t believe our Liberal friends will have anything to worry about either. While the film portrays a key moment where it may initially seem that EIM were the reason our country caught up to Osama Bin Laden, ZERO DARK THIRTY clearly shows us the toll that this nasty business takes on its administrators. We also see that this important information was just one piece of an incredibly large puzzle.
For the record, I believe that EIM helped our Government in defending our Country and I held this opinion before I went to see ZERO DARK THIRTY. I do acknowledge that some experts and others don’t believe that these methods employed on Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and two others did anything to help us. No matter what your beliefs are on EIM, I have no qualms recommending this film to anyone over the age of eighteen. This isn’t a rah-rah film, if one is looking for that. You see and feel all the failures and successes as they come. There is no “spike the football” moment at the end. And that is a very good thing. The ending fits and fits well.
I left the theatre where I saw ZERO DARK THIRTY feeling moved, humbled and in complete admiration for the great accomplishment of “Maya” and her many comrades at the CIA, other U.S. agencies, our Military and foreign allies. To spend nearly ten years, crawling through the darkness, scouring information, following leads, putting together threads and sacrificing their lives in some cases – it is an incredible feat of human determination and bravery. When you see the culmination of all this in the actions of our US Navy Seals and the last scene finishes, I believe you will feel as I do. And when you do, please stay to watch the credits. ZERO DARK THIRTY is a film and it is entertainment, but the people who created this film have done something amazing and for the ages. I hope that this film will have a chance to reach Audiences of all demographics and political persuasions without the exploitative auras of our partisan media. ZERO DARK THIRTY and its story deserve that and more. It may be on celluloid or inhabit digital 1s and 0s, but this film is a historical accounting of what occurred before and after Seal Team 6 put their night-vision goggles on that dark night. I, for one, am thankful.