Format: Starz on rockin’ flatscreen
I do love having a DVR. Every now and then when I scan through what’s coming on a few channels, I find something worth recording. A couple of months ago during a free preview weekend of Starz, Zero Dark Thirty was playing, so I recorded it. Tonight I finally had the chance to watch it. Put simply, this is not the movie I thought it was going to be. That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it’s just a thing.
On the surface at least, Zero Dark Thirty is the story of the pursuit of, location of, and ultimate death of Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for planning the 9/11 hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. For a great many Americans, I can imagine that Zero Dark Thirty represents something akin to closure. Honestly, it was only a matter of time before this story made it to the big screen.
What’s interesting to me is not so much the story here, but the way the film works. For the first 90 minutes, it’s all about the chase and the blind alleys, working through various pieces of intelligence, ferreting out clues, and making the most of inferences. The final hour of the film, roughly, shifts into a military operation, with the focus on SEAL Team 6 and the raid on the compound where bin Laden was staying. Our main character appears in the last hour naturally enough, but is completely absent from the main action and really present only as an observer. Typically, this would be jarring and problematic, but in Zero Dark Thirty, it works very well.
Our firebrand for that first 90 minutes is Maya Lambert (Jessica Chastain), a CIA operative recruited from high school and put to work on gathering everything she can on bin Laden following the 9/11 attacks. She is eventually sent to Pakistan where she travels to a number of black sites with Dan (Jason Clarke), another operative, who conducts interrogation on a number of detainees to determine the location of various prominent Al Qaeda members. In particular, Dan concentrates on a prisoner named Ammar (Reda Kateb), who is eventually tricked into revealing something about a courier who allegedly works directly for bin Laden.
This starts a chase that lasts for ten years, including several years where Lambert and her team believe that their courier has been dead for several years and the break that he is still alive. They also deal with suicide bombings including one that kills Lambert’s friend and colleague Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). Eventually, through hard work, the man is tracked down and, after constant surveillance, Lambert and her team determine that the house contains the man they are looking for, and the SEAL team is sent in to eliminate him, an event that takes the bulk of the final hour.
There is no doubt that Zero Dark Thirty presents a compelling story. Viewers expecting a thrill ride of constant action will find themselves sorely disappointed for the first 90 minutes. The opening of the film up to the presence of SEAL Team 6 is much more police procedural than it is anything else. When we do get to the end, it’s still police procedural, only it’s SWAT insteadof detectives.
In a real sense, movies become our reality, which means that as time continues, Zero Dark Thirty will become the mainstream opinion of what happened. Zero Dark Thirty gets three critical things wrong from the reality, though, and in a world where this story becomes more real than what actually happened, those differences are potentially important.
First, the film heavily implies that torture was useful in gaining valuable information on the location of Osama bin Laden. While I have no doubt that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were useful in acquiring some of the information we got, I definitely doubt that it was as useful as the film implies. Information gained under duress is always suspect, no less so in this situation than in any other, and the thought that it led directly to bin Laden’s death means that people will be much more willing to accept it or even demand its use in the future. I’m uncomfortable with that.
Second, the main thrust of the first two acts of the film is that the continued search for bin Laden happened specifically because of the efforts of a single CIA operative who refused to give up. The reality is that hundreds, thousands of people worked on this effort. Regardless of the situation in question, you don’t successfully buck the system in the CIA. There’s no way Maya Lambert could have stood against the collective might of the bureaucracy on her own and stayed in position. No, the capture or death of bin Laden was a priority that took thousands of people ten years of work. It’s disingenuous at best to disregard the work of that many people for the sake of narrative.
Third, and most telling, is that the film depicts the government at its highest level as dragging its collective feet through the ultimate raid. It is true that the trail had gone cold by the time George W. Bush left office. One of the main reasons the trail heated up again is that Obama’s subsequent administration made it a priority and Obama pulled the trigger on the raid, one that may well not have happened with a different Commander-in-Chief.
So what do we take away from this? Zero Dark Thirty is worth seeing, but it’s just a movie and nothing more. It’s compelling, but it’s also manufactured in the way to give us the narrative we want. The truth is that the real narrative could have happened here. Movies with active and intelligent teams exist (see Apollo 13) that are just as compelling as one that gives us a single hero trying to do the work against all resistance. We deserve not just a story, but the story.
Why to watch Zero Dark Thirty: The story of one of the most important clandestine operations in American history.
Why not to watch: It’s inaccurate.