Sitting in a hotel room in Orlando, Florida during a trip my senior year, I turned on the TV and read the breaking news headline that Usama Bin Laden had been killed. This was the end of a manhunt spanning decades, and a sigh of relief the world over. The man who was the head, the mastermind behind al-Qaida and the 9/11 attacks, was gone.
The movie “Zero Dark Thirty” is the story behind the hunt that intensified in the decade after the 9/11 attacks, and the woman who narrowed it down to the compound in Pakistan.
The movie opens to recordings of calls made the day of the attacks on the Twin Towers. A somber reminder of the lives lost that day, viewers can pick out conversations had between loved ones, and most prominently, of a woman trapped in a tower as she pleads for help from a 911 dispatcher.
From this we see Jessica Chastain’s character, CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), arrive in Pakistan and proceed to a “black site” where a detainee is being held and tortured for information. Maya grows from freshman agent to an obsessed “targeter”, an agent who identifies targets for attack, and searches specifically for Abu Ahmed al- Kuwaiti. Abu Ahmed was suspected of being the top courier for bin Laden, and Maya believed the courier system was the way to UBL, as bin Laden is referenced in the film.
The torture scenes have been met with an amount of backlash, especially from Congress members who believed the film to be “pro-torture” and depicted that vital information came from tortured detainees, specifically one detainee who was the focus of the first part of the movie. The scenes were presented as a portrayal of factual events that did unfold over that time period, but can be difficult for the lighter stomached viewer.
The films timeline runs for a decade, and we see the London bus attacks, the Islamabad Marriott Hotel attack and the Camp Chapman attack as the movie progresses. They are shown from an inside point of view, as Maya and her friend Jessica are dining inside the Marriott, and Jessica is a part of the Camp Chapman attack. These depictions are key, as they depict time passing, where without them it wouldn’t feel as if a decade passed.
The movies final sequences are of the raid on the Abbottabad compound and the recovery of documents and UBL’s body, another controversial part of the film. Members of Congress believed vital mission facts had been leaked to the filmmakers.
Not shown was the burial of UBL. Within 24 hours of identifying the body, according to reports, Muslim burial rites were conducted aboard the carrier Carl Vinson, the body washed, wrapped and buried at sea, after a consultation with the Saudi government.
The film is realistic in its approach, mixing the mundane of office work with the extraordinary, as when Maya briefs high level Washington officials on her plans.
Jessica Chastain in her first big leading character captivates the audience from start to finish, as she and her mission grow over a decade. When she goes into the room, as guards waterboard a detainee, her horror reflects that of the American people when the stories of the time America utilized these methods were unveiled. However, Maya hardens over time, and the mission to capture UBL becomes all encompassing, and Chastain relays the intensity as Maya wears down under bad news, dead ends and eventual, long-fought victory.
Kathryn Bigelow, in her second film following the Academy Award winning “Hurt Locker”, takes a risk telling a story that everyone knows the end to. She takes a different approach, telling the tale of those who did the important work of following the paper trail, which gives a whole new face to the War on Terror.