By Jessica Delfanti | January 4, 2013
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writer: Mark Boal
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Reda Kateb, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Harold Perrineau, Jeremy Strong, J.J. Kandel
With the Oscars drawing near, the special attention paid to Ben Affleck’s Argo and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty indicate a particular favor for “true” stories revolving around the conflict in the Middle East. While Argo centers on a mission that was declassified almost 20 years after its occurrence in 1979, Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the lengthy hunt for Osama bin Laden that concluded less than two years ago. While the tactical assault in 2011 made headlines, the film attempts a behind the scenes examination of the processes involved based on first hand accounts, hovering in a gulf between classified fact, propaganda, and thrilling fiction.
The film mostly centers on Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA Operative in Pakistan assigned to the manhunt for Bin Laden. Maya begins timidly in a detainee program under the tutelage of interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke), but quickly becomes almost obsessively devoted to the search. The film’s true spark is, not surprisingly, watching Maya at work, as she astutely tucks away information, working with a diligence that appears part instinct, part genius, part mania. Chastain’s particular face and physicality lend Maya an almost otherworldly intensity, and her character is remarkably free of the usual trappings of strong female characters on screen: neither sexualized nor emasculated, Maya is very simply an intelligent human whose gender is refreshingly a non-issue.
More interesting than Maya, however, is the in depth examination of the process of hunting a renowned terrorist. Mark Boal’s script is particularly effective in evoking the sense that such a case undergoes a hundred losses for every win. Where popular anti-terrorist media like Homeland or 24 ascribe an easiness and plainness to the activities of terrorists in the United States, Zero Dark Thirty reads far more realistic with the hunt’s plodding and frustrating pace as agents seek breadcrumbs of information and often come up empty handed. It is then with a great sense of victory that their success is elegantly accomplished.
As a subtle thriller, Zero Dark Thirty is a great film. It is only when we look outside the screen into the context that it becomes questionable. We know that the narrative is constructed from first hand accounts, but this information begs the question: when the Argo plot was only declassified after 20 years, how much information about this story is still locked away? How accurate can first hand accounts be when they conceivably aren’t permitted to speak on various subjects?
Considering the fact that Zero Dark Thirty must only tell part of the story, the film discomfortingly toes the line of propaganda. There is a very certain sense that this film is about the greatness of our CIA, and tangentially, the triumph of America. The central conflict of the film is clear: terrorists are bad; it is up to America to stop them and save the lives of innocents. There is a strange tone, however, that surrounds the second half of the film, especially the scenes of Seal Team 6 infiltrating Bin Laden’s hideout, that smacks of army recruitment videos and political speeches. In the wake of The Hurt Locker, which was so acclaimed for intelligence and good craft, one wonders what led Bigelow to choose such a specifically angled project.
What this polarity in filmmaking delivers, then, is a film that is smart, entertaining, and thrilling–but is in the end, still a film. Its greatest flaw is in the expectation that it might be something more profound. But as Zero Dark Thirty shows, truth is much harder to come by.