There’s something awfully sinister about the way Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have constructed Zero Dark Thirty. Initially meant to be a film about the failed mission to kill Bin Laden whilst he scurried between the mountain passes of Tora Bora, it changed course when President Obama made the announcement on the 2nd of May, 2011 about ‘Operation Geronimo.’ The world exploded into a polarized frenzy of emotions – overwhelmed and relieved that the most-wanted terrorist mastermind was dead. Stories of how the mission proceeded into a raid on some obscure compound in the middle of a city were all that people were aware of that mission. What people weren’t aware of was the painstaking manhunt that preceded the raid, a war that was waged in the annals of the CIA’s offices as scores of intelligence officers scoured for any shred of evidence that could point to bin Laden.
Zero Dark Thirty is a meticulously crafted film that deals almost exclusively with the processes of detection and espionage, and even though these two elements are essential to the film, it isn’t solely about that. It weaves in the story of a manhunt that culminated on 2nd May in the middle of a city hardly anyone knew existed in Northern Pakistan. It is interesting to find that even though the dramatized raid, which is beautifully accurate and plays out in (almost) real time the film holds the same amount of interest as a documentary does. However, what is unique to this film is that you don’t sympathize with anyone – neither the agent nor her prey; not the country or the fugitive. It’s an objective study into what was the real war on terror and what it really meant for a country that was determined to hunt down the most elusive individual ever known.
Many have regarded this film has a piece of propaganda meant to promote acts of torture. It would be foolish to assume that the torture displayed in the film might never have occurred, for torture occurs everywhere in prison cells as means to extract information. But does this film actually convey messages about how effective water boarding and forced sleep deprivation is? I fail to see how. The scenes are brutal and highly graphic, but does it take a stand? That is up to the viewer to decide.
The film progresses through the narrative of Maya – the chief agent who follows up the lead on Bin Laden, from the most remote areas of Afghanistan to Pakistan. Maya is the quintessential element to the film. Not only is she a factual element, she is also the epitome of a true spy – detachment from the subject, yet passionate about her mission.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya effectively and I seriously believe she was swindled out of an Oscar by a very image conscious Academy.
Zero Dark Thirty concludes with the raid on Bin Laden’s house – the most gripping 20 minutes of the film. It is the most meticulously crafted war scene I have seen in a film in a long time – careful and restrained, yet completely objective.
Zero Dark Thirty is a rare film, a documentary laced narrative of the most exhaustive manhunt in history. But it’s not a message film, it has no good guys or bad guys, no strikingly beautiful women or high paced action sequences. What it is, is a plain representation of the facts. What you interpret is your own research into it. Does it ask questions or throw light upon the most exhaustive war in history? That’s for you to decide.