Is it really that surprising that a movie based on one of the most infamous manhunts in American history is attracting a ton of controversy? Before it even had a go at a wide release, Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s follow up to the excellent Hurt Locker, is being attacked from the left and the right for allegedly suggesting torture played a big part in the killing of Osama Bin Laden and that a lot of the facts were either made-up or whitewashed.
As a critic, I can only assess Zero Dark Thirty’s quality as a stand-alone motion picture and little else. But at least as far as the torture scenes go, I believe that it’s being too harshly criticized, maybe as part of the CIA’s attempt to dismiss the film after they admitted many star struck agents who were fans of the Hurt Locker opened their doors to Bigelow and Boal. Perhaps they did not like some of the information they uncovered and decided to put into the film.
The film opens with one of the most intense interrogation scenes I’ve seen in a long time. The reason it trumps all of happy-go-lucky torturer Jack Bauer’s handiwork from 24 lies in the understanding that it’s depicted in the most realistic way possible. We see special agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) squirm while desperately trying to hang onto her professionalism, as a detainee is water boarded.
Now it’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation for the filmmakers. If they show the torture, as we know it happened, they will be criticized for insinuating it led to Bin Laden’s capture. If they don’t, the critics and the audience will pounce on them for sugarcoating the details.
Zero Dark Thirty is a dry procedural that strives to bring the audience cold, straight facts and not much else, and that’s where it’s power lies. There’s very little character development, just enough in my opinion, beside the particulars of the hunt for Bin Laden. This is a relentless and focused thriller without any fat in its almost three hour running time.
It follows Maya and the CIA’s wildly frustrating chase after the most wanted man in the country. It’s hard to call it a political thriller because there are hardly any politics involved. The higher-up powers are usually always in the background and the film refuses to do the ideological heavy lifting for the audience every step of the way.
Coming back to the torture, it’s shown only at the beginning of the film, takes place almost ten years before the killing of Bin Laden, and it’s dubious how much it helped, since it’s Maya’s clever bluff later in the interrogation process that provides any useful information. That’s not to say that if Bigelow and Boal truly found out torture directly caused the retrieval of this information, they would have shied away from depicting it thusly.
The undeniable strength of Zero Dark Thirty is in its build up. It lulls us into the hypnotic procedure of the hunt, only to deliver on one of the most exhilarating third acts of the year. I believe it’s not hard for you to imagine what real-life event this finale depicts. The greatness of this impeccably shot and edited sequence is how suspenseful it manages to become even though everyone in the audience knows how it ends. Regardless of the controversy, as a stand-alone film, Zero Dark Thirty is one of the best procedural thrillers I’ve seen in a while.