Zero Dark Thirty
★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Opening Friday, Jan. 11
Kathryn Bigelow's cinematic version of the U.S. military's absurdly protracted 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden is not exactly what you might expect. Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker), Bigelow's frequent screenwriter-collaborator, crafts the film as an investigative procedural. Boal, a former war reporter, emphasizes America's notoriously brutal and ineffective torture methods. The film's first act focuses on the interrogation of one hopeless prisoner at a "black site" prison where CIA goon-agent Dan (Jason Clark) repeats his mantra: "If you lie to me, I hurt you."
The psychological scars of his addiction to inflicting pain take a toll on Dan. Torture is reciprocal.
The intense interrogation sequences present a crash course in U.S. military-torture tactics. Sleep deprivation via stress position-bondage and heavy metal music blasting at ear-splitting volume is a warm-up to the daily ass-kickings and verbal and physical humiliation agent Dan delivers.
Dan tells his newly assigned CIA assistant, Maya (Jessica Chastain), that you don't want to be the one "caught holding the dog collar" when the oversight committee comes sniffing around. Maya's discomfort at observing Dan waterboard the victim allows the audience a glimmer of distanced empathy with the film's gutsy female protagonist.
It doesn't take much imagination to extrapolate about how Western audiences would respond to witnessing such Geneva Convention-defying torture methods if they saw them being applied to a citizen of one of their own countries. The effect is sickening.
Zero Dark Thirty erroneously implies that the American military no longer uses such torture methods against its prisoners of war. No doubt the script went through considerable editing at the hands of U.S. officials interested in putting a fresh face on the war crimes the military commits on a minute-to-minute basis in black sites and off-shore prisons.
Eventually, the narrative focus shifts to Maya's bureaucratic struggles within the CIA to pursue leads toward locating Osama bin Laden. Jessica Chastain walks a fine line in developing her character – she builds in every beat of introspection, self-discovery and game-faced attitude as her character quickly matures. Maya's progression as an arrow of the State acts as the film's narrative hook, one that Bigelow uses to distinguish Zero Dark Thirty from the Black Hawk Down-style film a male director would have surely gravitated toward. That's not to say, however, that Bigelow doesn't pay off on her film's promised suspense-laden conquest of the Pakistan compound where Osama bin Laden was discovered hiding.
The film takes for granted that Osama bin Laden was responsible for 9/11, despite the fact that no proof to the allegation was ever provided. The movie also conveniently skirts the assertion that it would have been judicious for Osama bin Laden to have been arrested and brought to trial where his testimony could have provided a wealth of insight into the inner workings of al-Qaida. Nevertheless, Zero Dark Thirty succeeds as military procedural and as a character study. It comes complete with a military operation represented with all of its incumbent imperfection.
The film's greatest achievement is that it doesn't glorify its subject. The audience is left to ponder the lasting effects of what they have witnessed.