A few years ago, Kathryn Bigelow was developing a movie about the search for Osama bin Laden. To that point, he had eluded all efforts to find him. The film was meant to end at the Battle of Tora Bora where they had thought he was hiding, but ultimately, they failed to find him.
The film was meant to end on an ambiguous note, sort of a “what do we do now?”, but then on May 6th 2011 the world found out that US Special Forces had found and killed him. The film was reworked, but rather than becoming a propaganda film, it became about the work the intelligence community did to find him.
The result is pretty spectacular.
Zero Dark Thirty is a spy film but not what you’d normally expect from a spy film because the main character, Maya, isn’t jumping from rooftop to rooftop or saving the world from a madman or ferreting out a mole; she’s diligently and tirelessly searching for a single man, using all the resources available to her.
As if we needed reminding of the situation, the film starts with a black screen with radio communications playing from 11th September 2001, something I found particularly effective. I’m not American, but I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when it all went down, as I expect most people do.
The film then plays out the entire ten-year search in its gritty, gruelling and bureaucratic detail, spearheaded by Maya.
To say it’s an effective movie would be the understatement of the year. What they had to do –including torture, groundwork, and long sleepless nights– shows the toll on us all through Maya and Jessica Chastain weathers it like a champ. She’s already won a Golden Globe for the role, and she deserves her Oscar nod more than anyone else I’ve seen so far for the upcoming ceremony. But, make no mistake; the Oscar is hers to lose.
Everything in this film is utterly compelling. When we finally get to the final act of the raid on bin Laden’s compound by Navy Seals, the idea that realistic military tactics and execution thereof aren’t filmable in a meaningful way is shown to be false. In fact, any time anyone says this to you from now on, tell them to watch Zero Dark Thirty.
This film deserves to win all the awards it’s nominated for. It probably won’t win them all, but it should, and in addition to everything above, because it tells us what happened but doesn’t tell us how we should feel about it. The torture and humiliation are on screen, but there’s no heavy-handed speech about how it’s terrible but necessary or how it is destroying the country’s soul or any of that. Just, here it is, feel how you feel.
That, in and of itself, with such a talked about yet delicate subject matter, is a major achievement.