From the first second when the lights dim it seems you know exactly what you’re in for in this movie. A black screen with a grim reminder of 9/11: voices from phone calls and radio transmissions of people inside the Twin Towers. Immediately we hate those that caused this tragedy. Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, has just come into Afghanistan from America specially recruited for the mission of finding Osama bin Ladin. She is initiated by viewing her first torture. Quite a controversy in real life and brushed off as necessary in the film. Is this film advocating torture? Definitely. Not only are we continually told that we get good information out of the victims, but when the official policy to stop torture comes in, we get a character telling us “we lost the ability to prove [bin Laden’s location] when we lost the detainee program.” The biggest thing I noticed was we only heard the word torture once, as though saying “detainee program” makes water boarding, sleep deprivation, and dog collaring more pleasant.
There are three distinct parts of this film. In the first bit, Dan (Jason Clarke) tortures to get the answers he needs and it works. In the second part torture isn’t shown as prominently, Maya has to adapt after coming into her own in this torturous world she was thrown into. Although she seemed uneasy witnessing her first torture she’s now relaxed during interrogations using whatever technique is necessary. This second part has more questions and less answers through non-violent questioning. She’s in her office as other operatives roam the streets of Pakistan looking for someone to lead them to bin Ladin. Lastly, we get the operation and prep for it. Navy SEAL Team 6 are recruited, briefed, and the operation is finalized before they go in for an extended killing mission.
We’re supposed to commend the Navy SEALs for going into the Palestinian compound, but I’m not. They’re shooting at women and traumatizing children while whispering “it’s alright.” That does not placate me. Seeing the atrocities committed by al-Qaeda does not justify the American’s use of brutality. This is not a tit-for-tat situation. There are so many greater themes that weren’t touched on in this movie by writers Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal. This movie could have really made me think at the end, but this didn’t. It felt like such a propaganda piece about how the Americans saved the world by killing Osama bin Laden.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, the main CIA agent trying to find bin Laden. In a character driven movie there is no character development. The only time we see real emotion is at the end, when she sheds a few tears. What was that to mean? Is she sad the operation is over? Mad? Happy? Chastain does what she can in the role, she gets angry at her superiors and stays serious and unemotional for the rest. We get two scenes where we learn about her, one where we find out she was recruited from high school, and another where she confirms she doesn’t have any relationships outside of work (or at work, really). But other that than we don’t know anything about her or her colleagues. We only learn about a character’s home life after she has died, and it’s from a news snippet.
There were no surprises and no “I wonder how this will end” moments because everyone knows Osama bin Laden was killed at the beginning of May 2011. Bigelow could have infused this movie with so much life by incorporating the controversies about torture or giving Maya a moral dilemma. Bigelow played it safe on this one, and I left feeling disappointed because I expected so much more from the writer/director pair that also did The Hurt Locker.
Zero Dark Thirty was alright. I wouldn’t give it Best Picture, and I understand why Kathryn Bigelow wasn’t nominated for Best Director. It’s also nominated for Best Original Screenplay (which I personally don’t believe it should get) along with Best Actress for Jessica Chastain who won at the Golden Globes, Best Sound Editing, and Best Film Editing.