Zero Dark Thirty chronicles the decade-long hunt for bin Laden with profound neutrality. Darkness. A blank screen echoes the desperate screams and howls of innocent civilians telephoning their loved ones before the World Trade Centre crumbled over them. 2,977 fatalities. Over 25,000 injuries. “9/11”, at the hands of Islamic fundamentalist group al-Qaeda, became the “deadliest terrorist attack in human history”.
The Bush administration swiftly launching the “War on Terror” to depose the Taliban, after the proposed extradition of leader Osama bin Laden floundered. Future terrorist attacks were imminent, with the CIA employing controversial systematic torture programs known as “enhanced interrogation techniques” to extract information from detainees in undisclosed black sites. Maya, a fictional CIA analyst tasked in locating bin Laden, soon becomes obsessed with potential lead Abu Ahmed that rapidly sends her down a monomaniacal path of danger, with growing pressure to save thousands of lives in the process.
Bigelow’s thrilling decade-long depiction of events, in what is claimed as the “greatest manhunt in history”, can only be described as uncompromising scintillating cinema at its most raw. The extremist behaviour of Islamic Group members have been widely reported, detailed and sensationalised by the media for countless years. “7/7” bombings in London. The Camp Chapman attack. The 2008 Mumbai attacks. All co-ordinated actions that drew widespread condemnation. However, dramatising these profound events to stir further hatred for extremist behaviour and imply celebratory national patriotism, are not functionalities for Boal’s succinct screenplay. Both Bigelow and Boal, whom collaborated on ‘The Hurt Locker’, utilise modern history to insight political critique upon the questionable actions of the Bush administration and malevolence of al-Qaeda.
A proliferate narrative neutrality that produced an unyielding barrier of risk, querying the legitimacy of bin Laden’s assassination and the gruelling process leading up to that pivotal raid. In the process, supplying sensitive philosophers and cowardly politicians with enough controversial ammunition to fire allegations from every direction. Supposed partisanship with the Obama administration, improper access to classified documents and pro-torture portrayal (more on that later…). These assertions are just that. Allegations. Because Zero Dark Thirty is a stark reminder of how ambivalent America’s contribution to this war was, and that undoubtedly irked “experts” and officials.
Putting aside the historical politics for one moment, the essence of Bigelow’s intellectual assertion comes in the form of Maya. A lone female operative shrouded in the masculinity of warfare. Her tenacity and tough-minded persona undeniably receives the most acute character development arcs ever written, acting as an independent pressured employee expending her entire career in chasing bin Laden and a conduit for the narrative’s neutrality. Her initial reserved attitude towards approved “enhanced interrogation” allows viewers to question the permissibility of such authoritative techniques. Then she becomes obsessed, gradually succumbing to the ferocity of her work. Weeks, months, years. A decade passes. The pressure breaking her meticulous persona down, utilising any and all methods in finding bin Laden. Yet Maya combats the systematic ideologies of the CIA consistently to grant her fictionalisation a required neutrality that issues humanity.
Chastain’s exceptional performance is littered with nuanced emotive details that gingerly bestow a provocative rage. Commanding, intimidating and menial. Chastain fluctuates her power from quaint whispers to enraged shouts, yet never lets her guard down. Until the final scene. A scene that profoundly reflected the morality and ethicality of all the preceding events that happened over the decade-long manhunt. The first and only moment where Maya exerts emotional fragility. A cluster of overwhelming feelings. Relief. Disappointment. Melancholy. Maya is the representation of the entire Iraq war from an emotional standpoint, and her culminating frame of film is perfect.
Bigelow, alongside Fraser’s clinically bleak cinematography, explores the dark side of war. Bolstered by a commendable supporting cast whom exude professional urgency to the matter at hand. From the desolate anticipation of the Camp Chapman attack, to the night-vision filtered compound raid of Operation Neptune Spear. Zero Dark Thirty never dissipates its tension and technical astuteness, despite the chapter segregation that does regrettably disjoint the elongated runtime.
Now, the torture interrogations. Waterboarding in particular. Famously generating a mass amount of controversy for its propagandistic nature and pro-torture stance. Makes you wonder why it conjured so much attention in the first place. To add on Bigelow’s response, it is a part of history. It shouldn’t have been, but it was. Consequently, these government approved techniques should not be ignored regardless if it lead to bin Laden’s location or not, and it absolutely does question the morality behind such actions. Maya’s inclusion complying with that thought-process entirely. It categorically does not normalise torture, nor does its involvement endorse such issues. It simply provides exposure, arguably creating a statement against torture by implying the antagonistic behaviours of CIA agents.
There’s a reason why Zero Dark Thirty was marred with controversy. There’s a reason why Zero Dark Thirty pursues a neutral narrative. It raises a fundamental question. “Was the death of bin Laden worth the price we paid?”. By showing the unspeakable, unflinching and the uncompromising, Bigelow audaciously challenges on an intellectual scale by using modern warfare as her weapon of choice. Producing a near-perfect film in the process.