As a medium, film has an amazing capacity to remind us of who we were.
We watch as events from our past for better and for worse shaped us as a society. Sometimes we see more innocent times, other times we relive terrible misjudgments. The audience watches from arm’s reach, believing that lessons from our past can guide us through our present. Sometimes though, a film dares to deny its audience that buffer – instead forcing them to confront what’s going on in the world right that very moment…for better and for worse.
In short, every once in a while, a film comes along and finds a way to remind us of who we are, and ZERO DARK THIRTY is that sort of film.
ZERO DARK THIRTY begins in 2003 with a C.I.A. operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain) arriving in Pakistan to aid in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. She is partnered up with an operative named Dan (Jason Clarke) and put under the supervision of Station Chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler). In 2003, the directive was clear: interrogate all captured Al Qaeda operatives to get whatever information possible on the plans and whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden. As we see when Maya arrives, the rules about what is and is not acceptable interrogation are being bent, broken, or completely ignored.
Maya’s team finds a measure of success and is given the name Abu Ahmed. They are told that he is the personal courier for Osama Bin Laden. Maya believes that he is the key to finding Bin Laden and fixates on getting his whereabouts. Months turn to years, and he cannot be found. Worse yet, further interrogations lead to the belief that the man they are chasing is long since dead, meaning the C.I.A. has been chasing a ghost.
Eventually, Maya gets lucky and discovers a lead on Ahmed’s true identity. Surveillance leads her to cell phone calls made from Pakistan. Further surveillance leads her to a massive suburban compound in Abbottabad.
After nine years, thousands of man hours, and scores of lost lives, Maya believes she might finally be on the right track. The question is, if she is, what will it take to actually make a move?
What ZERO DARK THIRTY underlines well is how much of The War on Terror was a frustration. It was a frustration for military leaders who were fighting an enemy they couldn’t see. It was a frustration for strategists who saw their resources get misdirected thanks to some bad decisions and policies. It was a frustration for everyone on the home front who endured lie after lie and anxiously waited for some sort of decisive victory. So much of the western world was just as frustrated as Maya got in the second half of the film. We all wanted to yell at the people in charge and scribble obvious details in big red marker to emphasize our point.
What the film wants us to understand is how precious little could be done about that frustration. We weren’t just at the mercy of an enemy playing by a separate set of rules, but we were left to deal with the consequences of some truly terrible choices made in the early going. The entire mission was like building a house thats foundation is one quarter-inch off. By the time you get two or three stories off, that quarter-inch has turned into one foot, and the entire plan needs to go back to the beginning. In the same way, the movie underlines how gunslinging decisions like Gunatanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and “Saddam Hussein absolutely has Weapons of Mass Destruction” set the plan off by whole feet…almost to the point that those building the house could have taken their tools and left.
Instead, people like Maya, George, and Dan played through the frustration. They kept pushing forward – sometimes at a painstaking pace. They were pulled into the fray, got a few lucky breaks, and made the right case to the right people. They recognized all of those early mistakes and never stopped trying to atone for them.
At the same time, ZERO DARK THIRTY doesn’t try to make any excuses. It begins by reminding us what spurred us all into war in the first place, and pulls no punches in what war brought out in us. The Coalition of the Willing, The West, The Allies – whatever you want to call the side that fought Al Qaeda – we tortured. This film doesn’t take a stance on whether that was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do, it just says without reservation “we did this”. It must have been tempting to say “Can you believe we did this?” or likewise “We won because we did this”. But no, the film just says “We did this. For better or worse, we did this. It can never be undone, and will forever be debated. But it happened, and that is that.”
Late in the game, the C.I.A. Director asks Maya what else she has worked on for the agency besides the hunt for Bin Laden. Quite matter-of-factly, she tells him “nothing”. It’s that moment, combined with the final shot of the film that makes me fall for Maya and her end of this story. She is not the sort of operative who has been playing whack-a-mole for a decade; capturing a list of targets and almost immediately being handed a new list of targets. She has spent ten whole years working on one thing and one thing only. It has cost her any semblance of a personal life, it has steeled her irrevocably, and when she finally achieves that one thing, she may or may not know what to do next. She has been blunted, steeled, reconditioned, and reprogrammed…so much so, that a moment that should spur satisfaction doesn’t seem to rouse anything close.
That’s what makes ZERO DARK THIRTY such a special film.
It would be easy to make a rah-rah movie about the night America killed its greatest enemy. It would be easy to evoke applause from audiences as Seal Team Six executes its order. The reality though, is that we get through that amazingly executed final act, and like Maya we find ourselves shaken and spent. The movie doesn’t celebrate the mission and doesn’t celebrate the war. It stands up and says “This happened: Now live with it”.