Zero Dark Thirty is a film purporting to tell the true story — more or less — of how the U.S. located Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, sent in a raiding party from SEAL Team 6 and killed him. It was made by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, and apparently the project was first put into production while bin Laden was still alive and intended as the story of how the U.S. just missed getting him in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, just two months after the 9/11 attacks. It was clearly a follow-up to their film The Hurt Locker, about explosive ordnance details (EOD’s) in the war in Iraq — basically the U.S. Army’s bomb squads — and The Hurt Locker had already served notice on us that Bigelow and Boal, whatever their public protestations (Bigelow announced publicly during the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty’s endorsement of torture as a necessary weapon in the “war on terror” that she had actually signed a petition opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, as if that was supposed to establish her liberal bona fides), take a very strong, hard-line Right-wing view of the global war on terror. Like The Hurt Locker, which went out of its way to avoid any depiction of innocent Iraqi civilians — the movie is full of characters who appear to be innocent civilians but in fact are stone-cold terrorists out to kill as many Americans as possible — Zero Dark Thirty is the sort of movie Dick Cheney could love. It begins with the innocent heroine, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who seems to be the focus of the movie largely because Bigelow was tired of having the irony that she became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for a film that had almost no female characters waved in her face, looking askance and a bit queasy over the out-and-out torture of detainee Amaar (Reda Kateb, who bears a striking resemblance to Bob Dylan around age 40) by Dan (Jason Clarke).
But Maya soon comes to realize that we can’t fight the war on terror without torture — a debatable proposition but one this film accepts as a given — and the film is basically the story of how Maya the incorruptible and unswayable bureaucrat pushes the rest of the CIA to accept her theory that a mystery man named Abu Ahmed Sayad (Tushaar Mehra) is in fact Osama bin Laden’s personal courier and the key to locating him, and how she gets a raid ordered on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad even though her colleagues in the CIA are only 40 to 60 percent certain bin Laden is there. Like The Hurt Locker (whose victory over Avatar in the Academy Awards was hailed by Right-wing writers as a triumph of Americanism over the silly piss-ant eco-freak Leftism of James Cameron’s stunning fantasy), Zero Dark Thirty is an endurance test as a movie — indeed more so, since it lasts 157 minutes (26 minutes longer than The Hurt Locker) and, for a movie about the killing of the world’s number one terrorist leader, it’s surprisingly action-less. Much of the film takes place either in detention cells — the critics who called the first 25 minutes or so “torture porn” are absolutely right — or offices, and though Maya has a Forrest Gump-like tendency to turn up at the scene of virtually every terrorist incident between 9/11 and bin Laden’s death (and her best friend is killed in 2009 by a supposed Jordanian defector and his driver, a suicide bomber, in Afghanistan — once again underscoring the point Bigelow and Boal make in both their “war on terror” movies that there are no “innocent civilians” in these countries, that nobody is to be trusted and everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan is either a terrorist, a supporter of terrorism or a terrorist wanna-be), the overall plotting is sufficiently contrived that one has no problem believing the disclaimer at the end that though the film is loosely based on real events, a lot of the characters (including Maya) are composites or entirely fictional inventions and this movie shouldn’t be taken as history. Zero Dark Thirty was expected to be a major contender for last year’s Academy Awards but wasn’t, partly because it was actually denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate — both Dianne Feinstein and John McCain (the latter not only a former Republican presidential nominee but an actual torture victim himself when he was a POW in North Viet Nam) attacked the movie for its unquestioning endorsement of torture, as did then-acting CIA director Michael Morell — and I suspect also because of the jealousy of other women directors, who had been overjoyed when Kathryn Bigelow broke the glass ceiling and became the first woman Best Director winner for The Hurt Locker but didn’t want her to be the second one as well.
It’s a quite good movie if you buy into its political premises but it’s also a singularly action-less one; even the final raid on bin Laden’s compound, which takes 25 minutes of screen time (only six minutes shorter than the real event), is surprisingly dull, partly because a lot of it is black-on-black and it’s not all that easy to figure out what’s going on. The only time we get a clear view of the action is during the green-tinted scenes representing point-of-view shots of the SEAL team members wearing spacy-looking night-vision goggles with four lenses instead of the usual two. These are supposedly so they can retain peripheral vision but they have the odd side effect of making the raiders look almost inhuman, sort of like the Teutonic Knights in the film Alexander Nevsky. Much of the preparation and backup crucial to the actual raid — like the presence of additional helicopters to evacuate the members of the team, including the ones in the helicopter that crashed, and the practice raid on a mockup of bin Laden’s compound built in North Carolina — aren’t depicted here; Boal’s script makes it seem like the Army and the CIA had so little information on the interior of the compound they couldn’t have built a mockup and thus had to go in “blind.” (Several imdb.com “Goofs” posters also noted signs advertising businesses with the Hindu names of their proprietors in scenes supposedly taking place in Pakistan but actually shot in India.) Like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie that’s powerful in a way but can hardly be called “entertaining,” and it’s neither the vivid piece of triumphalism the Right would have wanted (though maybe not; had bin Laden been killed while George W. Bush was still President the Right would have loved this film, but instead they were so fearful that the movie might make Obama look good in his re-election year — even though Obama is depicted only via one film clip as a prissy little piss-ant whose niggling “moral” objections to torture only get in the way of the tough guys and tougher girls who are actually fighting terrorism — they put pressure on Sony Pictures to delay the film’s release until after the November 2012 election) nor the sort of self-doubting movie Bigelow’s liberal “buddies” would have wanted her to make. In the end it was a modest success but not the blockbuster hit the filmmakers and Sony were obviously hoping for — its theatrical gross was $95,720,716 and its budget was estimated at $40 million, so given the usual rule of thumb that a movie has to make twice what it cost to break even (the extra is for advertising, promotion and other expenses aimed at getting people to see it), it was a moneymaker but not much of one.