THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"ZERO DARK THIRTY"
Zero Dark Thirty opens with two full minutes of 911 calls made on September 11 playing over a black screen. I'd never heard some of these recordings before, and they're chilling. Beginning the film in such a manner accomplishes two things: it powerfully sets the stage for what is to follow without being exploitative, and it fills you with anxiety. That second point may not seem desirable, but it is nevertheless critical. I felt anxious throughout Zero Dark Thirty because, at some level, it's fundamentally about anxiety. Specifically, it's deals with the anxiety that our intelligence agencies felt knowing that the mastermind of September 11, Osama bin Laden, was still Out There Somewhere, capable of leading Al Qaeda in another attack unless caught.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a CIA agent who, when we first meet her, is witnessing the torture of a suspect for the first time. While fellow agent Dan (Jason Clarke) waterboards the man (and more), she stands uncomfortably in the background. She knows the techniques are coaxing out important information that could be used in bin Laden's capture, but seeing a human being suffering weighs on her. Maya comes to believe that bin Laden is hiding somewhere populated rather than in a cave. She intuits that, to orchestrate further attacks, he needs to be near communication avenues. After President Obama puts the kibosh on torture, getting solid info to act upon becomes difficult. Following up on a lead obtained via Dan's heavy-handed tactics, Maya tracks her prey through his trusted courier. Confident it will lead somewhere, she has to convince higher-ups to put faith in her instincts. Eventually, the trail leads to a fortified compound, where bin Laden may be hiding with other people. The movie's final act finds a team of Navy SEALs storming that compound to get him.
The most obvious level Zero Dark Thirty works on is as a real-life revenge tale. The film shows, in meticulous detail, how the search for bin Laden was orchestrated and carried out, as well as how it ultimately led to his death at the hands of those SEALs. While we all know the story of how he was defeated, seeing it dramatized has a cathartic quality. (The two guys seated down from me were leaning forward during the last 30 minutes and actively cheered when the bad guy was killed.) September 11 left us all frightened and angry; watching the capture of an evil, evil man brings a certain emotional closure that is doubtlessly a big part of the movie's appeal.
The other, deeper, level at which the film works is, as I said, as a tale of anxiety. It's rarely spoken of, yet always right there, front and center. Maya begins somewhat timidly. Never saying a word about it, you can see her questioning whether torture is an ethical manner of extracting information. Later, as she hits both dead ends and bureaucratic red tape, her anxiety grows; the longer it takes to find bin Laden, the more opportunity he has to strike again somewhere in the world. The idea that innocent lives are perpetually at stake hovers above everything we see portrayed. Once his suspected location is found, Maya's anxiety takes on a new form. If he's there, the SEALs have a perilous mission to pull off. If he's not there, she's wrong, and that will make it harder to get authorization for another capture attempt. More than anything, this is what I responded to most in Zero Dark Thirty. Although they occasionally clash, Maya, the other CIA agents, and White House staff all feel anxiety related to years of not being able to find their target, of hitting walls, of worrying about what will happen next. Director Kathryn Bigelow captures this quality in literal nail-biting detail. She understands the frustrations and fears that go into chasing a terrorist who doesn't want to be caught. Bigelow also stages the events (I hesitate to call it “action”) so that the danger is palpable. Attacks on the Islamabad Marriott and Camp Chapman, plus the final raid itself, are all handled in a manner that drives home their importance.
In Jessica Chastain, the director has found a perfect lead. Over the course of the film, we see Maya transform from nervous, uncertain agent to fierce adversary; bin Laden doesn't know she personally exists, but he has a reason to fear her. Chastain shows the transformation subtly and gradually, so that we understand how personal the mission becomes to Maya. There are also strong supporting performances from Jason Clarke, Chris Pratt (as one of the SEALs), and Kyle Chandler (as the CIA's Station Chief in Islamabad). James Gandolfini also has a short but effective cameo as CIA director Leon Panetta.
Even though the outcome is known to everyone, Zero Dark Thirty really cranks up the tension in its third act. It doesn't matter that we know bin Laden is dead. The film is intense because, by that point, we understand all the things that went into the moment of capture: the false leads, the intrepid investigation, the White House's hesitancy to strike unless there was a better-than-reasonable chance of success. Everything built to that raid, and they eliminated him. Powerful and gripping, the movie is not only a fine document of the hunt for Public Enemy #1, but also a testament to the dedication of those in every corner of the military, government, and intelligence community who refused to give up the search.
( out of four)
Zero Dark Thirty is rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language. The running time is 2 hours and 37 minutes.
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