What does it do to us when we become focused on the annihilation of one person? To what lengths will we go in the name of security, or revenge? And what if we succeed? These are the questions explored in the movie Zero Dark Thirty, and they are…powerful.
On the surface, Zero Dark Thirty is a docudrama about the hunt for and assassination of Osama bin Laden, but moviegoers hoping to see a sensational revenge fantasy or a rah-rah patriotic portrait of our security forces will be disappointed. It is a grueling and detailed film, much like the operations themselves must have been. It plods through some of the developments. Only a few of the plot turns are abrupt or surprising. The characters are repeatedly frustrated in their pursuits. It is by no means a feel-good picture.
Yet I do feel edified by having seen it.
Jessica Chastain is very engaging in her portrayal of Maya, a salty and green yet formidable CIA agent. She navigates an ever changing cast of teammates in her determination to prove that one particular man, a shadowy courier who goes by the name Abu Ahmed, is the key to locating bin Laden. Equally compelling was Jason Clarke’s portrayal of Dan, a fellow agent and professional interrogator. These two characters make a study in contrast of life in pursuit of death.
In the beginning, Dan is seasoned in the methods of interrogation and Maya looks on, clearly disturbed but determined to learn everything she can. This is a difficult series of events to watch, and the film has elicited a fair amount of controversy for its depiction of waterboarding, sleep and food deprivation, and other forms of – well, no one uses the word torture, but of course that’s what it is. Opponents say that this movie promotes torture as a successful means of getting information out of detainees, but I disagree. Rather, this is only one of several areas throughout the film where we see that obsession with bin Laden or any target – however justified or necessary – leads decent people to do and condone heinous things. And in fact, after all that Dan put the first detainee through, success ultimately resulted from kindness and misdirection instead. This is no endorsement of torture.
As the movie goes on, the unrewarding task becomes increasingly distasteful to Dan – who decides to get away from the front and work from D.C. instead – but only makes Maya more focused. She weathers countless disappointments and dead ends as well as the loss of several friends, but she keeps going. In the wake of her greatest loss, a teammate asks her, What are you going to do?” to which she responds, “I’m going to smoke every [enemy] involved in this op, and then I am going to kill Osama bin Laden.”
In any other movie, this might have been a moment to cheer and wave a flag, but here it is sobering in its bald admission of raw motives. Maya wants revenge. She wants a number of other things, too – security for the homeland, an end to terrorism and the figurehead who keeps ordering it, peace and rest for her people – but the heart of it all is revenge.
It made me pause because I recognized in Maya what we all felt as a nation. What do we do with that? Is it okay to thirst for the blood of another person? Was there another course? Is there ever any true peace in an appointed “time to kill?” How is this different from the Old Testament God that everyone wrestles with so much in the modern church? These are impossible questions to answer, and it feels unpatriotic even to ask.
The movie culminates with the raid on bin Laden’s bunker and while there is not a lot of suspense, exactly (we all know how it ends), or even revelation, there is more grim detail on what an assassination looks like than we might prefer. The crying children, the masses of blood, the final death shots into the bodies of the adults – women and men alike… We killed him, but it is hard for us, or even most of the SEALS who were trained for such a moment, to see it as a victory party.
By the end of the movie, Dan has softened; he has chosen the path of less resistance and is comfortable in his desk job. We feel a sense of relief for him, but not a lot of admiration. His days of effectiveness are limited if not ended.
Maya, on the other hand, has succeeded in tracking down and securing the death of International Enemy Number One. Now she’s off to…where? We don’t know, and we get the sense that neither does she. Where do we go now, after successfully exacting our revenge? Is there a new vision for all of our energies?
Time will tell.