I was getting last minute slices from a pizza joint just off of campus in Upstate New York. Like all weekends while over there I barely ate anything in the daylight, and would take care of it in the evening. While waiting for my oversized couple of overly greased-up slices, I get a call from my Mother. It was way past the normal calling hours for her, so I wondered intently as to what this was all about. “Have you heard?” “Nope, what’s going on?” “The President is going to be on soon, the news is saying that they killed Osama Bin Laden.”
It all didn’t quite register at first, they got him? How? Where? “Really? I’m on my way back to my apartment! Call you guys back…” I wanted to know everything that was available to the news at the moment, and to make sure that this wasn’t a false alarm. I jumped into my car and turned onto the radio to try and find a radio station that was covering breaking news. Nothing doing, just weather reports. I parked the car, rushed into my apartment, got to my room and turned on the tube. There it was, the Breaking News banner that everyone had been waiting for for ten long years. Later as Barrack Obama walked confidently out into that corridor of the White House, it only helped to reinforce the notion that ‘yeah, they got him, he’s dead’.
Kathryn Bigelow’s new Military Docudrama Zero Dark Thirty centers on helping to try and answer some of the questions I and no doubt many others had that night. Chronicling CIA agent Maya’s nearly decade long manhunt for the most wanted, dead or alive, man of the 21st century. Jessica Chastain’s performance gives us nothing of her back-story, off-duty life, hobbies or much of her personality traits, none of that matters. Her portrayal of Maya’s unrelenting resolve in finding target number one IS the character, her life IS the search for Bin Laden or UBL.
The story begins in 2003 with Maya witnessing her first interrogation of a detainee, suspected of handling money for The Saudi Group of Al Qaeda. It is as grisly scene of water-boarding, humiliation and inhumanity as you’ll likely see depicted. Even though this is her first time dealing with torture with her own two eyes, she displays very little sympathy for the prisoner as she allows Dan, an animalistic Jason Clarke, to continue his reprehensible work. Although she is not the one directly conducting the procedure, her stoic expressions says it all ‘We need what this guy knows at all costs.’
As Maya gathers more information and leads, the manhunt is made more personal by the mounting terror attacks occurring around the globe, on her co-workers and her self. Never wavering from the prime goal, she sets about discovering anyone who would be in UBL’s inner circle. She knows she’s close, nothing will come between her and seeing this now obsession to the very end.
Bigelow’s direction and her ‘Hurt Locker’ writing partner Mark Boal’s script all do wonders for creating this gripping, dense and unfolding story of determination and retribution. Unsettling portrayals of US intelligence gathering are fully rendered and realized in unflinching detail. Questions about the tactics used in the fight against terror are also raised, though, thankfully, the film is never politically dragged down because of those questions. The film only serves to put an unblinking eye on the events and people.
The very weight of the world is seemingly on Maya’s shoulders, and she feels it strongly at times. How could she succeed where the entire backing of the US military and it’s allies have all failed? Simply put, she has knows that she cannot fail. Even though some of her superiors believe otherwise, UBL is too large of a symbol for radicals around the world to be just swept aside. Maya knows this all too well and relays this to a her superiors in memorable confrontations towards the end of the film.
When a break finally happens, due in part from a bribe pay-off, all roads lead to that compound in Pakistan. After dealing with a lot of 11th hour red-tape, the mission is finally given the green-light. What follows is as harrowing, unbearably tense and tightly shot as any extended battle sequence you’ll ever see. It is a dizzying hypnotic experience following Seal Team Six into the fray and the fog of war. It is as great of a climax to a war film as any in long while.
It took a few hours for me that night to realize that the following Monday, in a few hours in fact I had an exam on a subject I was particularly weak in (Elements of Mechanical Design, if I’m not mistaken). So, reality sunk-in, it’s back to normal life, minus one mass murderer running free to worry about. I told some friends to turn on the news, not mentioning what it was about and went straight to bed. It was that simple for me.
For Maya, and I suspect the many other people responsible for giving us a giant victory on that night, I don’t think it was that simple. UBL was the only thing occupying their lives for such an extended period that it must have been near impossible to comprehend, it’s over and done. The final shot of film is Maya heading back home as she openly weeps for the first time. Is it for all the people the man is responsible for killing? Is it for knowing how tainted her own soul is now? In my view it’s all of that, but more, it’s the burden of the question of what’s next? What happens for me now?
What happens for all of us now in this unknowable future, is the question indeed.
9.5/10 (In the vain of ‘All the Presidents Men’ of taking recent history and breathing life into it, the film succeeds as a military docudrama, procedural and obsessive character study)