The film Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, went into general release in the United States on Jan. 11, 2013, hours after it was learned that Kathryn Bigelow wouldn’t be receiving a nomination for an Academy Award in the best director category. The film is among ten named for recognition as best picture.
The movie might be called an “intelligence procedural”: It depicts American officers using spycraft to track al Qaeda members, pinpoint a courier for the terrorist group, and ultimately find bin Laden’s hiding place in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The story begins with an al Qaeda detainee being subjected to what the Bush administration called enhanced interrogation techniques and others labeled torture. There has been considerable criticism that the movie is too pro-Obama – director Bigelow and writer/producer Mark Boal met with the president and with then-CIA deputy director Michael Morrell and received briefings from other Obama administration officials – yet many interpret the film’s interrogation scenes as a vindication of Bush-era methods of questioning prisoners. The film strongly implies that harsh interrogations paved the way toward finding bin Laden. In the real world, they did not. Ironically, Morrell’s role in handling relations with the moviemakers appears to have shot down his prospects of being named CIA director, a nomination that has gone instead to presidential advisor John Brennan.
Zero Dark Thirty relies for its credibility on the character of a driven intelligence officer, Maya, portrayed by Jessica Chastain and based on a real-life Central Intelligence Agency member. Apart from being long and cluttered, the film’s principal flaw rests squarely on the Maya character upon which it depends so heavily. Chastain does not convey the strengths that would make Maya real and carry the film. A different female lead might have given us the headstrong, highly motivated Maya we expected when we walked in the door.
It’s easy to wonder if the film might have been more persuasive with Jennifer Ehle playing Maya. Ehle portrays a secondary figure, the chief of base at Camp Chapman near Khost, Afghanistan where, on Dec. 30, 2009, the CIA suffered the most devastating defeat in its history when a turncoat agent set off a suicide bomb and killed eight CIA officers, including the chief, and a Jordanian intelligence official. CIA officials later said that Osama bin Laden’s inner circle helped plan the attack. Ehle is very believable as a career intelligence officer and the suicide bombing is depicted with immediacy and realism, but it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that the filmmakers were simply checking a box on their pathway toward the finale.
Given the extraordinary attention to authenticity that the Bigelow/Boal team strived for and that we expected, Zero Dark Thirty has its peculiar moments. In every capital in the world, the CIA station chief operates under cover – sometimes relatively light cover, but never out in the open. Yet in early scenes the CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, played by Kyle Chandler, wears a CIA lapel pin with his business suit. In later scenes, an American flag adorns Chandler’s lapel instead, suggesting that the filmmakers belatedly wised up.
When we finally get to the SEAL team’s assault on the Abbottabad compound, the raid is acted-out in real time with machine-like precision, but visible to the theater audience only through the yellow-green lenses of night vision goggles. The celebrated stealth version of the MH-60K Black Hawk helicopter gets plenty of screen time but we never see the CH-47G Chinooks that provided back-up in the real-world attack. It’s very possible that the assault on bin Laden’s household is the most true-to-life portion of the film, but therein lies another problem. The audience is largely cheated of high drama when the al Qaeda chieftain gets his due after almost 160 minutes of running time.
Zero Dark Thirty is worth seeing if you want to know how Bigelow and Boal handled one of the historic events of our time. It lacks the sparse intensity of the production team’s earlier The Hurt Locker, named best motion picture in 2009. Zero Dark Thirty isn’t as good as it ought to be and it isn’t Academy Award material.