When the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 completed its mission to kill Osama Bin Laden, it was reported that President Barack Obama said, “We got him” — a phrase that was echoed by chants outside the White House and emblazoned on T-shirts.
In the thoughtful and riveting thriller “Zero Dark Thirty,” director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal detail what it took to “get” Osama Bin Laden — and delivers an uncomfortable reminder that “we,” as in the government of the United States acting in the name of its citizens, did things of which “we” shouldn’t be proud.
The film starts with a black screen and audio of people calling home from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 — a stark reminder of why America’s pursuit of Bin Laden began. Bigelow then flashes forward two years to a CIA “black site” where Dan (Jason Clarke), a CIA agent, is telling a low-level Al Qaeda operative, “I own you, Omar. You belong to me.” Dan is seeking information, and he uses techniques, including waterboarding, that the George W. Bush administration labeled “enhanced interrogation” and most sensible people call torture.
Do these scenes, which have prompted fierce debate by movie critics and people in the political field, constitute an endorsement of either the morality or efficacy of torture? I’d argue no. The efficacy is dubious, since Omar is shown giving up information not under torture but when that duress is removed and he’s treated like a human being. As for the morality, Bigelow and Boal don’t feel the need to spell things out for viewers, instead letting them judge for themselves.
Attending Omar’s interrogation is a new CIA field agent, Maya (played by Jessica Chastain), who becomes the through-line for the entire movie. Maya is quiet, but tough, listening more than she talks — and constantly analyzing all the available data and working to drum up more. When Omar finally does give up a name, Abu Ahmed, Maya’s the one who figures out that it’s the name of a courier who carries messages for Bin Laden. Find Abu Ahmed, Maya deduces, and they’ll find Bin Laden.
But it’s never so simple in the CIA, and one of the beauties of Bigelow and Boal’s work is how they translate the complex stream of data into a cogent narrative. They also delve into the details of CIA internal politics, as Maya must buck her Pakistan station chief (Kyle Chandler) and later butt heads with her boss (Mark Strong) back at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Bigelow and Boal essentially divide the story into three main chapters: the frenzied field work in the wake of 9/11; the analytical puzzle being pieced together at Langley; and finally the mission itself, on May 1, 2011, when the Navy SEALs go into Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan — which is exciting, even though we all know how it ends.
Each chapter yields fascinating details, as well as smart supporting performances by a cast that includes Jennifer Ehle as an overeager field agent, James Gandolfini as the cagey CIA director and Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt as SEALs who carry out the final mission.
Through it all, Chastain’s performance becomes the compass by which the movie charts its course. Chastain’s Maya is smart but not showy (except for one quotable moment with Gandolfini’s character), and above all persistent in her pursuit of the information and her determination to see that information acted upon. She is an engaging symbol of the CIA’s process and America’s resilience.
‘Zero Dark Thirty’
An exciting, thorough examination of how the CIA found and orchestrated the death of Osama Bin Laden.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language.
Running time • 157 minutes.