Zero Dark Thirty begins with something quite horrifying. Viewers are faced with a black screen, with audio coming from a real 911 call made during September 11. It’s uneasy listening, but with it, the film establishes something really quickly: this isn’t just a story about bringing a criminal to justice. There is more emotion at play, something more personal to grapple with. And as such, it becomes a story of revenge told at a geopolitical scale, with the entire CIA as the wounded protagonist. And like any good revenge film, it acknowledges that revenge comes at a cost. Zero Dark Thirty is a morally complex and bracingly unsentimental account of a very difficult subject.
The film largely follows the exploits of a young CIA agent named Maya (Jessica Chastain). She is assigned to the team tasked with finding Osama Bin Laden. She spends the first couple of years interrogating detainees, until one of them finally gives up the name of a personal courier to Osama Bin Laden using the nom de guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. Maya then dedicates the next few years to finding this mysterious courier, chasing one lead after another while living the dangerous life of a professional spy.
There has been a lot of debate on the Internet about the film’s depiction of torture. There are some who say it glorifies torture by distorting events and making it seem like torture played a part in the eventual capture of Osama Bin Laden. And it is an important argument to make; one should never just easily accept the narratives being presented in a movie with such a highly charged subject. But there is also another side to consider: the film also presents torture as a truly terrible act with dubious results, and it exacts a great cost from its perpetrators.
This is the real core conflict of the movie. Its nuts and bolts are those of a procedural, an investigation that has characters following clues from point to point, all leading to a final goal. But dramatically, it dabbles in the moral equivocation of a revenge story. It portrays the structure of the U.S. as a whole as angry and wounded, and growing increasingly obsessed with exacting vengeance on this single terrorist. It leads them down dark places, and it costs them dearly. Even in the most supposedly heroic moments, like the raid in Abbottabad, the film is decidedly sober about its depiction of events. There is no glory to be found in their mission, no grand sentiment to cling to. It’s just a bunch of armed men shooting people in the dark, then shooting corpses to make sure they’re dead.
All this is done with great craft. Kathryn Bigelow applies propulsive direction to a lot of dry material, making even sequences where the agents wait around for some sort of decision feel as exciting as any action sequence. And as mentioned before, the film doesn’t back down from showing some of the more horrific realities of this search. The actors hold up their end as well, with Jessica Chastain leading a really strong cast of actors. Chastain plays a potent mix of belief, obsession, desperation and doubt. She delivers the complexity of the character without even saying anything at all.
Zero Dark Thirty stands as counterpoint to the largely celebratory mood that followed the death of Osama Bin Laden. Its account soberly dissects the years of work that went into that one supposedly glorious mission into Pakistan, and reveals that there is something darker at play, and the country as a whole might have paid a bigger price. Osama Bin Laden may be dead, but is the world really safer because of it? Has the world really changed? The film depicts individuals who have lost parts of themselves in the quest for revenge on one man, and having found him, can never really recover.