A person doesn't just disappear. Not in an age of satellites and cellphones. Not when the most powerful nation on earth calls for his blood.
And yet, Osama bin Laden had done the impossible. He knocked down the World Trade Center, launched a holy war and became the most wanted man on the planet. Then he was gone—a bogeyman hidden in the folds of shadow, a nightmare waiting for the close of the eye. He had vanished, and in the void he left it was as if we could hear him laughing.
It would've been easier, perhaps, for us to give up our search, to just banish him from our brains by trying to forget. And, perhaps, some did.
A CIA operative assigned to Pakistan in 2003, Maya inaugurates her indefatigable hunt for bin Laden. It's an urgent mission, at least at first—a search abetted by "black sites" and waterboarding and what many would call torture. Slowly, she pieces together a path to a shady messenger known as Abu Ahmed. He's the key, Maya believes—the key to finding bin Laden and bringing him to justice.
But how to find Ahmed? Not a single source knows where he lives or even his full name. Moreover, new political leadership in the United States clamps down on the CIA's most extreme methods of interrogation. And then someone uncovers crushing news: An informant says Ahmed is long dead, and bin Laden's trail seems as cold as the corpse.
But Maya won't move on. Over months and years, adjusting to new administrations and utilizing whatever methods she can, Maya keeps searching, searching, searching … until she finds a compound in the heart of Abbottabad—less than a mile away from Pakistan's elite military training academy.
No one's sure if bin Laden's in there, not definitively. He's still invisible to the CIA's spying eyes, silent to its prying ears. But Maya knows. In her gut she knows. And after a super-elite team of SEALs splits open the compound, the world learns an important truth:
A person doesn't just disappear. Not even Osama bin Laden.
"To big breaks and the little people who make it happen," toasts Maya's best friend and CIA operative Jessica. And indeed this movie tells us that people like Maya and Jessica can move mountains.
Maya's the grimly principled core of the story—the "little person" (based, it's said, on a real CIA operative) who hunted down bin Laden for 12 years. And while we may take issue with some of her methods (she relies on evidence obtained through waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques), her courage and dogged tenacity deserve our praise.
She risks her life in Pakistan more than once—surviving a bombing at one juncture, an assassination attempt at another. She loses friends along the way who weren't so lucky. She battles a boss who thinks her time's better spent elsewhere. And when she finds the compound, Maya hounds another boss—on his window writing the days since the discovery was made, an incessant reminder that he needs to do something with that information.
While we're at it, we should also offer praise to those men who carried out the actual attack on bin Laden. It wasn't an easy job, as this movie makes abundantly clear.
But even as Zero Dark Thirty lauds those who found and, ultimately, killed bin Laden, it also gives those in the audience room to ponder the less comfortable realities of the operation. If the raid itself was heroic, the methods of extracting information (which helped make the raid possible) were not. And while most would probably say that killing bin Laden was "justice," we see the cost of that justice in the sobs of the children and grandchildren left behind—and the bloodstained bodies of those who died with him.
To see death and torture, of course, is not a "positive" element. And I think that's one of the points the movie itself is trying to convey.
Islam is, inherently, an important backdrop here. But the religion is not explicitly discussed, and the closest we get to a true manifestation of Islamic faith is seeing a Muslim CIA agent finishing up his morning prayers, then rolling up his prayer rug and putting it away. Calls to prayer wake Maya up from a night on the couch. We see women (and men in disguise) wearing burkas.
Emblems of Christianity, meanwhile, are reduced to a tiny Christmas tree decorated in the CIA's Pakistani headquarters. But Maya does seem to believe in something beyond the empirical. When asked why she's driving so hard to get bin Laden, she says, "A lot of my friends have died to do this. I believe I was spared so I could finish the job."
During dinner, Jessica asks Maya whether she's "hooked up" with another agent. "A little fooling around wouldn't hurt you," she says. Maya replies that she's not one to sleep around. "It's unseemly," she says.
A CIA interrogator, Dan, pulls a prisoner's pants down in front of Maya, humiliating him by exposing his "junk" to her. (Audiences see the man's backside in a pretty lengthy sequence.) There's a reference to homosexual rape in prison.
Women wear tight and revealing dresses in a Kuwaiti nightclub.
"In the end, everybody breaks, bro," Dan tells one of his prisoners. "It's biology." And it's no wonder. His interrogation techniques include waterboarding (a prisoner gags and gasps for air underneath a towel), humiliation (a prisoner is led around wearing a leash and collar, as if he were a dog), sleep deprivation (a prisoner is subjected to at least one night of pounding heavy metal music, and we hear he's been awake for more than 90 hours) and constriction (a prisoner is forcibly folded into a box not much bigger than a filing cabinet drawer). Dan kicks chairs out from underneath prisoners, and he and an associate wrestle one to the ground after the prisoner tries to kick him.
Though Maya finds the interrogations uncomfortable to observe, she believes they're effective. When she's questioning one prisoner, she has a man with her for the express purpose of punching him (and he does, repeatedly). We see internees in these black sites bruised and bloodied. We witness videotaped confessions of people shackled or in the midst of succumbing to said interrogation methods.
Outside in the bright light of day, several terrorist attacks are documented. A bomb explodes on a London bus. We later see news footage of the bus's twisted carcass, and a badly burned victim describes the scene to a television reporter. A gun assault in Saudi Arabia is shown, full of gunmen and bullets and lots of bloody, hurting and dying victims. Another bomb destroys part of a Pakistani Marriott where Jessica and Maya are having dinner. They're uninjured, but they crawl past several whimpering people who weren't so lucky. Two guys open fire on Maya's car, riddling it with bullets. Several CIA operatives are killed when a suicide bomber blows himself up.
The final assault on bin Laden's compound is gruesome: People are gunned down (their children often screaming in the background), with soldiers routinely shooting the presumably dead in the chest (just to make sure). One man is shown in a pool of his own blood, shot in the face. A woman wails as someone tends to a gunshot wound in her leg. Several explosions go off during the attack, and a helicopter crashes into the compound. Bin Laden himself is barely seen: A SEAL takes a picture of his bloodied face, and we see mostly obscured images of him dead. A few more morbid flashes come when he's in a body bag.
Crude or Profane Language
Nearly 60 f-words, many tossed around by Maya, some used sexually, some combined with "mother." About a dozen s-words are also used, along with a smattering of other profanities (including "d--k," "a‑‑," "b‑‑ch" and "h‑ll"). God's name is misused three or four times (paired once with "d‑‑n").
Drug and Alcohol Content
Wine, beer and other drinks are downed. Dan plies a potential source in a nightclub with alcohol. Several people smoke, and prisoners are offered cigarettes as incentives.
Other Negative Elements
Dan asks a prisoner whether he soiled himself. (Maya seems to recoil from the smell.)
What are we to make of Zero Dark Thirty? Is it a patriotic story documenting the United States' patience and determination in bringing one of the planet's most notorious villains to justice? Or is it a tragedy—an illustration of the terrible toll the search took? Does it excuse the methods used to extract information regarding Osama bin Laden? Or does it condemn them?
In director Kathryn Bigelow's able hands, the answer is yes. Yes to all.
Bigelow has a knack for crafting movies that ask provocative, probing questions but never dare answer them. And here she seems to lament the brutality of interrogation methods used shortly after 9/11—but she also tells us they worked. In this nearly three-hour drama, she demonstrates both the cost and reward of the hunt for bin Laden. But she doesn't presume to tell us whether it was worth it or not.
That makes the subject matter here tricky to navigate, on both a superficial and deeply moral level. And critics have indeed taken issue with Bigelow's lack of presumption.
Some believe the movie is "pro-torture"—showing, as it does, detainees coughing up crucial bits of information during or after brutal interrogations. Others call into question the movie's legitimacy, saying that Osama wasn't at all found through "enhanced interrogation techniques." According to CNN, three prominent U.S. senators sent a letter to the movie's distributor, letting it be known that they felt "deep disappointment" in the way Bigelow handled the CIA's interactions with prisoners. They said the movie inaccurately "credits these detainees with providing critical lead information" during the hunt for Osama.
Even those who maintain that we can't be certain exactly how bin Laden was found (the CIA tends to be fairly tight-lipped about such matters) are troubled by Bigelow's apparent moral ambiguity. "If she were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems," writes The New Yorker's Jane Mayer, "the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful."
Commentators are defending Bigelow, too. Some with their own political axes in tow. Others wanting to give wide margin to her artistic right to take on such an inherently complex issue.
Bigelow herself has been pretty restrained in her responses. "The film doesn't have an agenda, and it doesn't judge," she told The New Yorker. "I wanted a boots-on-the-ground experience."
The content we see here is brutal and at times horrific. Watching acts of torture, even when they're acted acts, can never be pleasant or uplifting experiences. And we're never quite sure if these characters' blithe acceptance of harsh interrogation techniques is hyperbole or realism. What we are sure of is that we've been forced to debate anew whether such techniques should be used … even if they work.
Bigelow is content to let her characters tell their own stories in their own ways. Whether every detail is accurate isn't really her first concern. She's more interested in triggering both emotional and intellectual reactions. And that can be a great thing. It can also be a terrible one as it throws the moral onus—the call of justice—back on audiences. Maya tells us what she did and how she did it: We must say whether she was justified or not.
Zero Dark Thirty takes us on an epic manhunt that brought a villain to final, terminal justice. But even with that exclamation point of an end, we're left with far more questions than answers.