Between The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow crafted two of the most important statements on post-9/11 America, despite neither film taking place in America itself. While The Hurt Locker presents the audience with a more palatable message, in a more accessible package, for my money, it’s Zero Dark Thirty that is the more well-made, well-crafted film, a film that raises more questions than it answers, that spotlights much of American foreign policy since 9/11 through the lens of the chase for Osama bin Laden.

After all, it’s not like killing Osama bin Laden stopped terrorism. This is something that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal explicitly acknowledge. Nothing changed, and getting bin Laden was a practically meaningless and symbolic gesture. How can something that felt like such a meaningful release, justice for thousands of fallen Americans, have been so pointless?

Similarly, Zero Dark Thirty features an array of scenes depicting different kinds of torture of imprisoned al-Qaeda members and associates. It’s heavily implied that the torture isn’t yielding useful information, that these people will say anything just to make the torture end. Most experts agree this is common behavior under torture, that torture isn’t actually effective – and it could even be pointed out that it’s only after Maya and senior officer Dan (Jason Clarke, disheveled) treat one of their prisoners as a human that he offers up any useful information. Was the torture effective? Was it justified? Maybe they would have come across this information another way – it’s later shown that the missing clue was in the files all along. Maybe not.

Zero Dark Thirty, like many of the best films, has more questions than answers.

Zero Dark Thirty features a wide array of characters, and an All-Star cast of actors (I mean seriously – this has to be one of the best casts ever assembled), but ultimately presents us with the point of view of Maya, who at the onset of the film is a young CIA analyst tasked with the hunt for Osama. As played by Jessica Chastain, Maya is a tenacious, eyes-on-the-prize woman, an expert who trusts her own instincts and isn’t afraid to speak up even when others doubt her. Chastain is so damn good here – the way she pulls on this one tiny thread that nobody else believes will turn into anything, her persistence, is wholly communicated through Chastain’s performance.

As Maya continues to pursue her one lead doggedly, we see that the fight against terrorism has real costs. We see bombings and shootings, we see CIA agents, characters that we’ve even connected with, get duped and killed. We see a CIA supervisor who gets driven out of the country, and Maya even gets exposed to danger multiple times. Bigelow creates a film that never lets up, not even for a moment, until the very end. The ceaseless tension is nerve-wracking in the best way.

And when the film gets to the raid on the Abbottabad compound, well, then Bigelow gets her chance to really show off. And she takes advantage of that chance big-time.

The 45-minute raid sequence is a tour-de-force of directorial skill, the culmination of Bigelow’s decades directing action, directing horror, directing audaciously grim submarine stories and action-packed surfing movies and sci-fi experiments. Bigelow uses every tool in her toolbelt to put us in the shoes of the soldiers on the ground during the raid. The raid in Zero Dark Thirty is as memorable a sequence of a film as I can recall ever, an utterly staggering display of craft.

When Maya finally sees the dead body of Osama bin Laden, and finally breathes that sigh of relief, it’s the first release of tension we’ve had in the film; and yet, it’s immediately followed by a moment not of joy or happiness, but of melancholy. We don’t know what Maya’s thinking in that moment, but it’s not hard to imagine. Here she is, on a plane to anywhere, and she has nowhere to go; she’s coming to grips with finally achieving her goal, and yet perhaps also realizing that the job is never really done. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what she’s thinking – the larger point stands – this supposed great achievement, resulting in the death of this great enemy of the state, it feels like a hollow victory. Years later, with new threats arisen, it’s not hard to see why.

All told, I can understand why some might be turned off by a film like Zero Dark Thirty. I can see why someone might find it unpleasant, and I can understand why some felt that this was a film that was selling American propaganda or trying to extoll the virtues of torture. And while I can see those points of view, I ultimately strongly disagree; this, to me, is a masterwork by Kathryn Bigelow.

Other Notes

  • What a great score by Alexandre Desplat. It’s certainly not the most subtle score, but it hits the right notes all the time, and when “Maya on Plane” plays at the end, with its quiet guitar melody, I get chills every time.
  • Seriously, THIS CAST! It’s not even worth it for me to list all the awesome actors in this movie, because I’d be better off just linking the iMDB page in the end.
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