Eyes on the Prize
Zero Dark Thirty, the brilliantly and intensely crafted film from director Kathryn Bigelow, opens with a black screen and a mosaic of panicked voices. They are from September 11th, 2001, cluttered screams and calls that both set the mood and the motivation for the entire film. It is a deftly and passionately handled chronicle of the hunt and raid of Osama bin Laden, the man largely responsible for the loss of over three thousand innocent lives that fateful day. But it is also prominently about the woman, the CIA operative Maya, in charge of the hunt, and her tireless effort to find and kill the world’s most wanted terrorist.
The very next scene begins in 2003 in a torture room, in which a man with potentially useful information is shackled with his arms stretched out. He has bloody marks on his face and his treatment is gruff, brutal, and severe. The main interrogator Dan (Jason Clarke) uses simulated drowning and locks his prisoner in a small crate as part of his “enhanced interrogation,” a kinder, political term to clean it uglier cousin “torture.” This depiction of course has caused its own kind of interrogations from government officials and media, whether practices like that existed and if their purpose actually gleaned elemental information.
Thus, there is a tendency to look at both of Kathryn Bigelow’s films, this and 2008’s Oscar winning The Hurt Locker, as either bold forms of propaganda, or at least morally biased depictions of war. But these films, especially this one, are not meant to end discussion; rather, they invite even more ethical questions about this specific ten-year period of war, and the United States’ current presence in the Middle East. This, in effect, is a bold and daring piece of cinema that can disappointedly only be compared to a few other historical pieces of fiction, which includes her last feature.
It is a narrative though, how could it not be? Accordingly infused with documentarian feel, we follow Maya (A powerfully refined Jessica Chastain), and her emotional journey through a job that requires emotion to stay dormant. Bigelow, who teams up again with Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal, subtly tells us that’s a lie and that our hunches, our sometimes impenetrable consciences, require a faith and hunger that by-the-book logic overlooks.
Her hunch lies on a man named Abu Ahmed, an Al-Qaeda courier she believes, through many other testimonies and witnesses, works and carries out messages for bin Laden. It is a long and arduous process, filled with governmental speed bumps and other, more assured opinions, some from an eventual, rare female friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). Resistant opinions also come from her boss Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), who has his own dilemmas between weighing initial domestic safety and Maya’s requests for bigger-picture enforcements (Chastain’s performance is punctuated with her aggressive yelling of an ultimatum to Jonathon to get her more intelligence).
Her struggle is depressing, scarring, and real. Maya has no real backstory, no explanation to her training or past experience. This is her first big job and her only one, and in this is a symbolic humanizing that lifts her into a rootable figure- containing a refined swagger that is tested to crumbling heights. She finds death’s door always lurking, near roadside bombings and breached doors. She tells a Navy Seal in the midst of mission gone wrong, “A lot of my friends have died trying to do this. I believe I was spared so I can finish the job.”
Chastain’s performance is slowly calculated and masterfully designed, portraying a woman whose character is split into thirds following significant events of this hunt. In that first scene, she supplies Dan with the water for the man’s torture, slowly accepting her duty with trembling hands. As time progresses, so does her spirited self-esteem, intensity, and willingness to grab answers from hesitant mouths. After crucial moments of gunfire and death, she loses her stateside innocence altogether. We gravitate to her bridled confidence, her tempered self-assurance and sit in awe.
In the current string of television, Clare Danes plays a similar CIA operative on Homeland, searching for a terrorist nearly her whole time at Langley, Va. Bigelow’s film dwarves this largely dramatic serial not necessarily in its content matter, but by its main character’s ability to deflect any punishing and lustful vices. Both women however are triumphs and torchbearers of the intensified hunch and the never-ending pursuit to obtain its veracity. In a male dominated landscape, these women have the strenuous effort of not only following their leads, but fighting for their ability to have them. We see in both, though, the darker moments of their similar missions, the physical and mental expulsion and draining required in capturing their targets.
Bigelow proves this alternate reality once again in the otherworldly surroundings of life in the Middle East, and its stark banality back at home. In The Hurt Locker, her main character temporarily back from war stands and stares in a grocery aisle, puzzled and immobile at the infinite bright-colored cereal brands. It is all at once a commentary on PTSD and human life, a dichotomous image that cries for a country’s wartime introspection. This type of reflective, iconic moment permeates throughout Zero Dark Thirty as well, a film detailing the idiosyncrasies Maya found that ended up being so vital. Bigelow captures the small things in her frame, a desktop background, an unresponsive instant message, and fills them with power.
We aren’t concerned as much with yarn and push pins as much as we are with Maya’s personal journey. Strategy is referred to but, unlike Homeland, we don’t examine round the clock surveillance teams at work and the logistics of putting cameras and microphones in hidden corners. These things are inferred, much like the torture. Instead, we become immersed in the field and in the plight of a woman hardened early by the brutal interrogations. We become immersed in the necessary ground components of a mission, tag-team phone relays and small bribes that all factor into the monumental equation.
Bigelow separates this ten-year journey with chapter cards, slowly evolving into the decision to infiltrate the white washed mansion in which Maya believes Bin Laden resides. This is a longer process in which conjecture must be strong, because it was stronger for Weapons of Mass Destruction the many higher-ups nervously posit.
The final raid on bin Laden’s high-walled fortress in Abbattobad is one of the most riveting final thirty minutes of film I’ve seen. The swarming of Navy Seals (most notably played by Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton) from their helicopter journey to their night-vision, green-lit raid is a master course for inducing suspense. At over 150 minutes long, this is the fastest and most unnoticeable “long” movie this year, a testament to the film’s moving arc.
Again, the level of torture has spurred debate. It happened, but to what extent? Would it have mattered if things were conducted differently? That is then the next question, something only a parallel history could tell. But Bigelow also asks us the more important question of “where do we go now?” It’s the last line of the film directed at Maya. The decade-long hunt, the lives lost, all of it now completed with a few bullets, and yet we march on, but where? All that tension built up and contained, now expelled. What’s the next move? This is the existential question more than just Maya must face.