I was expecting a thriller; a fast-paced film with heart-thumping true-to-life action. Instead, it's a hard to categorize. The horrors of CIA bureacracy are interspersed between episodes of terrorism. The narrative goes from 9/11 and hopscotches over the next 10 years. CIA agent Maya starts the film as a newbie in the field, and ends it being the driven, sleepless, and cutthroat agent who played a major part in finding Osama Bin Laden.
Of course, any film about warfare and the measures taken during such a time must step on some toes. In December, several US Senators expressed their distaste in the film, even going as far as to claim it “grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Usama Bin Laden.” This claim, and the backlash it caused as others seeked to throw their two cents in, was ultimately the downfall for a film that got 5 Oscar nominations but no win.
I think it's quite clear after watching the film that this is not a pro-torture statement. Zero Dark Thirty goes to good lengths to remain at least somewhat unbiased. It could have gone all Rocky and proclaim that Americans are the world's greatest saviors.
Instead, the film showed the good, bad, and ugly sides of war. It begins on a black screen, overlaid by the voices 911 operators speaking to panicked people inside the World Trade Center. The message is clear: "This is why we're fighting. This is why we went to the measures we had to."
Maya (Jessica Chastain), on one of her first days in the field, witnesses the torture and humiliation of a terrorist with revulsion. The man committing the torture, Dan (Jason Clarke), admits it's awful but a necessary evil. The filmmakers show the good intentions behind the torture--they obtained evidence and information, but also showed the negatives. On one captive, it was more effective when they lied, acting as if he already squealed on his buddies, and they got better information.
Nothing was sugar coated. You see American soldiers as the good and bad guys, including a rough scene in which the men commit a raid on the complex they assume Bin Laden is hiding in, and kill a mother in front of her children.
We follow Maya through the story, but unfortunately don't get much back story. Her character changes drastically from the fish out of water when she was first stationed in Pakistan to the confident, driven woman to catch Bin Laden even when her higher-ups didn't believe she had enough evidence.
The most stellar portrayal of her character is evidenced as Maya, impatient at no one acting on the discovery of the complex where Osama very likely is hiding, writes the number of days since her discovery on the window of her boss's office.
This isn't a film I'd watch multiple times, but I think it's good to experience. I do believe, however, the characters could have more depth, and the pacing seemed rushed with the year-jumping. Basing a film on true events doesn't always lend itself to perfect storytelling.
Zero Dark Thirty, Rated R, is currently playing in theaters.