Love or hate it, Zero Dark Thirty is one of the year’s most discussable films. Less than two full years after it happened in May 2011, Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have already immortalized the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in film (I mean digital). This incredibly rapid turnover from real life events to movie dramatization provides for a rather bizarre viewing experience that makes it impossible to watch the film simply as a piece of art. One’s enjoyment of the movie is constantly interrupted by a nagging voice going: Is that what really happened? Is that what she was really like? The she, in this case, is Maya (Jessica Chastain), the film’s representation of the CIA Officer known only as “Jen” who played a key role in the decade long manhunt for Bin Laden. Chastain plays Jen as a fiery, cocky heroine who’s as smart as she is brash. She’s entertaining to watch but sometimes feels a little bit too Hollywood. For example, did the real life “Jen,” in answer to the CIA director’s question “Who are you?” reply: “I’m the mother fucker that found the guy”? It’s a funny line for something meant as entertainment, but Zero Dark Thirty isn’t just that. Given our nation’s closeness with the subject matter it can’t be.
Which begs the question what do the writer director team want it to be? Catharsis? Perhaps the same kind that sent many Americans dancing in the streets and setting off fireworks when the news of Bin Laden’s death first broke? Thinking of this as the lights dimmed and the reel began to roll, I wondered what the reaction in the theatre would be when they finally showed the Navy Seals killing him. Applause? Cheering? In the end it was neither, but that’s not to say it won’t be in other theatres.
And how will this film play with future generations? Bin Laden as a villain is mostly absent from the plot and the story instead relies on the fact that viewers will have prior knowledge of the events. Instead of showing the atrocities of 9/11 in depth, Bigelow opens the movie in darkness. For one minute the audience sits in blackness, captivated as sound bytes of terrified 9-1-1 calls and frightened news reports fill the theatre. Using bits and pieces without focusing on any one thing specifically, Bigelow calls upon the audience’s own memories to create the pathos, and refrains from turning tragedy into entertainment. It’s incredibly moving and tastefully done, but will it work for those who didn’t live through 9/11? What about those born thirty years from now who see the film nearly half a century after the story it tells came to pass? How will they experience this movie? No doubt they will be taught from a young age the horrible things Osama Bin Laden did, yet it is unlikely that the film will give them such catharsis and I wonder if they will be left confused as to why there was so much fuss about killing someone who was barely in the movie at all.
Quandaries aside, the film itself it pretty good. You might even say great if you’re the kind of person who loved The Hurt Locker (2008), but I didn’t so I won’t. Director Kathryn Bigelow certainly knows the fine points of drama, though, and she extends seemingly simple scenes into hair-raising madness. The final scene when the Seals go in to get Bin Laden is superb. Everyone knows how it ends yet you can’t help but be in the edge of your seat for it, wondering how everything’s going to turn out. In other scenes Bigelow’s camera is unflinching in showing the reality of the world it occupies. She humanizes a tortured prisoner while keeping in mind the things that said victim has done to put himself in the situation and throughout the whole process the camera keeps a keen gaze on the act itself. It isn’t pretty.
Despite how well made it is the whole movie suffers from existing too soon. While The Hurt Locker was able to comment upon the times simply Zero Dark Thirty feels like it is the times, and thus feels unfinished. The story they’re telling is so current that we cannot yet say what the results have been. Where most historical dramas end with some text about what the results of the story were, Zero Dark Thirty has nothing. True the characters succeed in their goal of finding and eliminating Bin Laden but as to crippling Al Queda and making the world a safer place? Only time will tell.