This is not a movie about boys with guns. As we saw in Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar winning Iraq War film, The Hurt Locker, the director deals in personalities not heroes; process, not historic moments. Like in All the President’s Men (1976), a film not about the resignation of President Nixon, but the long and often dead-ended process of discovering his treachery, Zero Dark Thirty is not about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.
Instead, Zero Dark Thirty is about the protracted series of events that lead us to Bin Laden, and the people who were warped by them. It’s a film about the accretion of certainty, factual and moral, that leads us to an inevitable yet elusive conclusion. It’s about what that hunt did to a nation’s soul, told through the proxy of CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), a Carrie Mathison-like agent, who relentlessly chases and ultimately discovers OBL.
The movie is based on first-hand accounts of actual events, and opens with the defining crisis of the millennial generation; the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. With a black screen, and only the sounds of emergency 911 calls and confused newscasters announcing the fall of the towers, the absence of image allows this collective event to be remembered personally by each viewer.
We hear planes crash. “I love you.” Static. Where were you? The trauma feels immediate and fresh. The non-specificity of the blank screen paradoxically makes the opening scene incredibly individual. From the very beginning, the audience is implicated in the events. We don’t watch from a distance, we relive the experience.
When enhanced interrogation methods/torture/detainee program tactics are used in the pursuit of OBL, the audience is not a passive observer. We are uncomfortably poised to empathize with both interrogator and interrogated. Dan (Jason Clarke), as the orchestrator of Gitmo and its intelligence gathering horrors, is warm, funny, and genuine.
He always presents his interviewees with a choice. “You determine how I treat you," he recites, “When you lie to me, I hurt you.” The agent constantly reminds detainees that they control their own fate, even when he’s rendering them powerless. We never forget these men are terrorists, but we also never forget they are men.
The interesting thing about Bigelow specifically — and not to make sweeping generalizations about women directors — is that she is a woman telling men’s stories, or stories usually told by men. Just as Martha Gellhorn revolutionized war correspondence by writing about quotidian struggles — cafe shortages and movie house prices — Bigelow highlights nuances that are usually overlooked in the larger martial narrative.
One of them is humor and humanity. When the assassination team is deployed, one SEAL, played by Parks and Recreation’s goofy Chris Pratt, is listening to motivational speaker Tony Robbins on headphones during the helicopter ride. Other small details like Maya’s very deliberate use of the word “fuck” in unexpected places, and tight shots of Chastain’s face instead of the main military action elevate the storytelling to master craft.
Ultimately though, it’s Chastain’s committed performance that keeps us riveted during a two and a half hour film, depicting a story we already know the ending to. The "greatest manhunt in history" is turned on its head, as the story of just one woman.