By Joan Ellis
Zero Dark Thirty has become a current event.
Who but director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal would have tackled the daunting challenge of filming the hunt for Osama Bin Laden barely a year after the CIA and Navy Seals found and killed him? By erasing the conventional lag time between a historical event and its dramatization, they have placed themselves and their movie squarely in the controversy over torture, the CIA and the tangled web of U.S. relations with Middle Eastern countries.
Bigelow and Boal have drawn accusations from the CIA that say the film posits torture as the key to finding Bin Laden. Not so. In their movie, torture produced only a blind alley clue. Acting CIA director Michael Morell granted that the CIA had met with the production team but announced that the film is not historically accurate.
Although taking license is common to films based on true stories, it simply cannot be denied that the CIA used torture repeatedly in the years following 9/11.
Maya (Jessica Chastain), a midlevel CIA agent, has been compulsively determined to find Bin Laden since the 9/11 attacks. She has traced leads through the intricacies of the Middle East both on-site as an agent on the ground and as a headquarters operative in an exhaustive search of field reports, DVDs, photographs and films. The movie’s gift to us is the understanding of the grueling process of gathering intelligence. Acting on it – the glamour ingredient – comes at the end in the undeniably bold raid on the Bin Laden compound.
When at last Maya finds the trail of the key courier to the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, she grows strong with the promise of success. Her other, more personal battle is the one to be taken seriously in the CIA culture. Possibly alone among critics, I thought Jessica Chastain lacked the presence for this particular role, a limitation that occasionally lent her an air of a child playing a grown-up in a very adult world.
What remains is the public controversy over torture as a means for extracting information from an enemy. The U.S. has traditionally agreed to abide by the clear mandates of the Geneva Conventions. After 9/11, the CIA used brutal torture – shown here in the introductory scenes – at black op sites created around the world specifically for that purpose. What the film does – to our collective benefit – is to remind us graphically of the inhumanity of torture – the dreadful power of captor over captive. Director Bigelow has thrown this hand grenade into the public debate where it belongs, right along with the question of international assassination by U.S. drones.
If Kathryn Bigelow paints on a confusing canvas, we should remember that the culture of the Middle East is exactly that. In the confusion of centuries-old loyalties and customs, she has created a fine picture of the complexity of gathering intelligence in a world where nothing at all is clear or straightforward.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.