There’s no denying the power of a “true story” when watching a film. The weight of “this actually happened” brings a gravity that you can’t fabricate, even if the scriptwriters have swapped facts for more dramatic elements. Unfortunately Zero Dark Thirty takes a slightly different road appearing more like a journalistic compilation of first hand accounts. The result is somewhere between a documentary without the revelations of any of the real players, and a movie with many dramatic inventions but devoid of entertainment.
Following the decade long search for Osama Bin Laden the film focuses on Maya, a CIA operative whose sole purpose has been to find him. She is depicted as the single-minded driving force behind the pursuit of leads to uncover the whereabouts of the Al Qaeda’s leader, culminating in the raid by SEAL Team Six in 2011.
Much of the films first forty-five minutes is the interrogation and torture of captives under the now defunct American detainee program. It’s hard to know what the point of this was, I couldn’t work out if the film was for or against torture and I also couldn’t work out why the filmmakers had chosen to depict the torture as they had done so. For a film resting on “first hand accounts” the sequences felt contrived, dishonest, and frankly boring. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that Zero Dark Thirty gets a lot wrong when it comes to the torture of detainees. To me, this feels like torture-porn, added to create controversy without an honest attempt to ask any real questions.
It’s not until we get past the torture that the film gains any kind of momentum and becomes even remotely interesting. It’s about this point in the movie that things are starting to make sense, you actually know the name of one or two of the characters, and the filmmakers start developing them. Yes, that’s right, it takes about forty-five minutes before you get to see the characters do something we can understand and relate to. At 157 minutes, honestly, they should have started the movie here and just summarised the earlier events.
I’ve been quite negative about the film to this point, but it does have two very strong redeeming features. Jessica Chastain as Maya, and the actual raid at the end of the film. Chastain is excellent, she’s the only real developed character in the story and she does justice to her fiery red hair. She’s the films emotional centre, she brings the lighter moments, and she brings all the gravity. I love the concept of a strong independent and well educated woman bringing down the leader of Al Qaeda. Without Chastain I’m afraid this whole film would have been quite boring.
The other major success of the production is the raid itself. Cold, calculating, slow, methodical, and painfully brutal. It’s an amazing counter point to say the Bond or Bourne movies, a reminder of how it works in the real world. I’ve no doubt it will shock a lot of viewers, but probably not come as any great surprise. Regardless, it’s the films best moments, its only source of tension, but I’d love to get the perspective of someone whose life was affected by 9/11 because the movie strongly suggests the end is quite a cathartic moment.
It’s tough to believe everything presented in Zero Dark Thirty. The CIA have issued a fact sheet pointing out factual errors in the story, and many publicly available “first hand accounts” contradict the manner in which they are depicted on screen. There’s also been a tidal wave of criticism about the films depiction of Pakistan, right down to the language being spoken. It seems a great deal of what you see on screen is not even remotely what you would have seen or experienced if you were actually there. The main character Maya is also not a real person but rather a compilation of the many women who helped hunt down Bin Laden.
Zero Dark Thirty is not entertainment, it’s not even entirely believable. It probably does capture the major points in America’s efforts to track down Bin Laden, and it probably does justice to the raid itself. However if you’re going to make a movie like this you need to do more. I would have loved to learn more about the real world players, delved into the politics even if it was speculation, and felt a greater sense of what the killing of Bin Laden meant to the world. I feel this is a lost opportunity, but I didn’t feel like I’d wasted my time.