When a film is dealing with a specific historical event, one in which we already know the outcome, the trick is in finding another avenue in which to captivate your audience. That was Director Kathryn Bigelow’s challenge with Zero Dark Thirty, detailing the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and she succeeds with flying colors. Even in this case where there were conflicting reports on many of the particulars, everyone knew the basics. The terrorist leader was holed up in a compound in Pakistan and a U.S. Navy SEAL team is sent in to kill him on May 2, 2011.
Unlike the poorly made-for-TV film Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama bin Laden, which focused primarily on the special ops team (and made them look like unprofessional jerks), Bigelow’s film instead focuses on a young CIA agent named Maya (Chastain), whose dogged, nearly ten year pursuit of bin Laden had to overcome numerous setbacks and the doubts of her own superiors.
When first we meet Maya she is in Pakistan working with fellow agent Dan (Clarke) who is interrogating a man named Ammar who is suspected of having ties to several Saudi terrorists. Dan’s ‘interrogation’ consists of several methods of torture including locking him in a tiny box, depriving him of food and water, and waterboarding. The torture scenes became the subject of much controversy, largely driven by a media that was stirred up into a ridiculous frenzy. These scenes are short, and frankly, next to the average episode of Spartacus, make these seem like a tea party. Nothing to see here people, move it along.
Dan and Maya eventually trick Ammar into giving up the name of bin Laden’s personal courier, a man named Abu Ahmed. The bulk of the film consists of Maya using all of her resources, which frankly seemed somewhat scant most of the time, to try an locate Ahmed, and in turn, bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty masterfully walks the tightrope of being espionage thriller and political drama. Chastain is absolutely brilliant as the resilient CIA agent who is determined to convince her bosses that bin Laden is indeed within the fortress like compound of Abbottabad, Pakistan.
She harries her division chief constantly, even chastising him for losing sight of the goal of getting bin Laden. What stands out about her performance is that it’s courageous without it becoming a novelty because she is a female in a traditional all male game. Jason Clarke also shines as Dan who simply does his job in the most matter-of-fact way possible. He’s not apologetic about what he does to his prisoners but neither is he sadistic. Imagine the reaction if Bigelow had him play the role in that manner! James Gandolfini has a small role as CIA head Leon Panetta although his name is actually never used in the film.
The raid, which takes place over only the last 25 minutes or so of the film, is shot at the ground level, almost putting the viewer right in with the SEALs as they quickly make their way through the compound before the raid can draw the attention of the Pakistani military. When bin Laden, who is shown only for a second, is shot dead the reaction isn’t one of jubilation but handled as if the solider was a factory worker who just tightened the lug nuts on a new car rolling off the assembly line.
With limited information, Bigelow and her production team did what most consider a remarkable job in recreating the stealth helicopters used in the raid and all of the armament and gear used by the actors was recreated as realistically as possible thanks to numerous former SEALs who were brought in as consultants.
Ulitimately Zero Dark Thirty is a film not about vengeance but about justice. Justice that took nearly a decade to achieve but was done so with little fanfare by the participants…that was saved for us at home.
The DVD has only four short featurettes that total about twenty-five minute’s total
No Small Feat (4:00) – Looks at the evolution of the film from Beigelow’s point of view
The Compound (9:00) – This featurette examines how the production crew rebuilt bin Laden’s compound as faithfully as possible with the information regarding size and dimensions that was available.
Geared Up (7:00) – A look at the military gear used in the film and the training that the actors went through to be as realistic as possible in portraying the Navy SEALs
Targeting Jessica Chastain (5:00) – A profile of Jessica Chastain’s performance and how she became involved in the film