Zero Dark Thirty hits theaters in limited release tomorrow riding a wave of critical buzz but also controversy. Having had the opportunity to attend a preview screening early last month by the invitation of Sony Pictures, I can understand why both the hype and concern would crop up. The film opens with 20 minutes of the intense and persistent torture of a prisoner by CIA operatives that had me noting the duration of these scenes when they finally ended. Media analysts and even political figures have protested that the film endorses torture. The filmmakers, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have been on the defensive ever since.
No matter what anyone says, the answer to the question in a film about linking together pieces for a greater whole, comes from one’s ability to put together the film’s components. It’s a poetic notion for this episodic film that covers 10 years of investigations that led Seal Team 6 to Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan. The film sets out a clear correlation to the end result with its first narrative scenes: the torture of a man called Ammar (Reda Kateb) at a “black site” in an “undisclosed location.” Secrecy and mystery abound in this film, even though everyone now knows how it ends. But it’s all about finding meaning in associations in the selective dramatization of events, from the vivid recordings of suffering and panic during the Sept. 11 attacks against a pitch black screen in place of the opening credits to the film’s final emotive shot of the its key character played by Jessica Chastain with a concentrated potency that belies a human fragility transcending gender.
The drama of this film lies in the main character’s zeal to keep alive what she believes are credible clues in the face of countering facts and doubts by everyone around her. Throughout the film, the CIA operative Maya (Chastain) tries to keep her beliefs alive by repeating her information to any doubters. The truth lies within her repetition of the importance of a courier’s name gleaned from Ammar, the man so thoroughly tortured by Maya’s PhD-holding colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) during the film’s opening scenes.
Dan is vividly established as a genius at his craft. “In the end, everybody breaks, bro. It’s biology,” he tells a wiped out Ammar strung up by his arms in a large, cavernous cell. Maya stands in the background throughout most of these scenes that span the gamut of all torture techniques you have ever heard about. Though Dan coolly repeats lines like “When you lie to me, I hurt you” to Ammar, Maya stands back. She recoils from the beatings, waterboarding and humiliation Ammar endures.
What Maya’s face shows is put into words by a soldier who observes Dan toying with monkeys in a cage outside another black site: “You agency guys are twisted.” In the end, as Dan predicts, Ammar breaks. It looks like kindness finally does it. Maya and Dan sit with him outside in the sun, as Ammar enjoys a meal and spits out various names. But that does not discredit any contribution of the torture prior: the beatings, the degradation and sleep deprivation all build up to the relief of this meal out of the binds. Though Maya recoiled in the early scenes of torture, she is all too eager to reap the rewards after Ammar settles down to name names, including that of the courier who ultimately led the CIA to bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan: Abu Ahmed.
The middle of the film is all about keeping that name relevant. The names of Ahmed and bin Laden appear in subtitles during many other interrogation videos Maya watches (again, the association of torture and relevant information). However, the film also spends lots of time throwing up obstacles of relevance against that name. She is told she is “chasing a ghost” by both terror suspects and colleagues alike. Her station chief, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), tells her, “You’re fucking out of your mind.” However, while Bradley plays politics, Maya persists, even as her clues seem to crumble around her. This middle part of Zero Dark recalls David Fincher’s slippery use of clues and obsession that fueled his underrated 2007 masterpiece Zodiac. Though lives are lost and even her life winds up on the line, Chastain plays Maya with edgy stoicism throughout, earning the film’s closing shot powerfully. This mission is all the emotional attachment she needs, and in uncharacteristic Hollywood fashion, no love interest is involved. Women will love her for her power as a strong self-supporting female, and men will love her for the power she brings to statements like “I’m going to smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m gonna kill bin Laden.”
It all leads up to that grand finale when Maya’s information leads Seal Team 6 to the complex bin Laden has hidden away in. This is when the score of Alexandre Desplat swells up to swirling strings and the cinematography and editing takes over. Seal Team 6 becomes an extension of Maya’s fatal reach. The men are obscured by night vision goggles and heavy gear. The darkness of the scene is all shifting shadows. The distinctive voices of Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton sometimes stand out, and close up views of their eyes are some of the brief glimpses of humanity in the film’s most cold and distant yet intense scene. Little terse whispers of “Khalid” and “Osama” by the soldiers lead to fatal mistakes by those hiding inside who dare to peek around corners before precision-like shots and double taps take out the near helpless targets. It’s a brilliantly choreographed and well-earned climax to a film that has earned the recognition and buzz leading up to awards season. It should be an interesting contender for Bigelow and Boal who once again prove they are a directing/writing team to contend with when it comes to intimate war films.
Zero Dark Thirty is Rated R and runs 157 min. It opens in limited release in only two theaters in South Florida this Friday, Jan. 4: the AMC Aventura and the Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton. The following Friday the film will open wide at most theaters.