Cinema as journalism: Zero Dark Thirty and the hunt for OBL

Zero Dark Thirty Director Kathryn Bigelow makes no qualms about it: she intends to tell you the story of Osama Bin Laden’s (OBL) death, and if you can’t handle the truth, stay out of her way. In an era where national discourse on the use of torture during the first ten years of the War on Terror have been pushed aside, Bigelow and team remind us of it again, proclaiming out loud that not only was the U.S. systematically torturing suspected terrorists at CIA black sites around the globe, but that the intelligence community in the Middle East was deaf to the dining room debates going on at home, given instead full license to do what they had to do against a stateless, invisible enemy. This brutal reminder of our not-so-recent dark past, this attention to getting the story’s details right, and the honest attempt not to sensationalize is all why Zero Dark Thirty is more journalism than cinema, more Frontlines than The History Channel.

Bigelow’s straightforward storytelling style is reflected in her straightforward protagonist, CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), for whom finding OBL has become a personal obsession – she has no friends back in the States, she quarrels viciously with her older more bureaucratically-minded superiors, she appears disinterested in fun. We are to see Maya’s obsession as a reflection of the national consciousness – her drive motivated less by a need to rid the world of evil or even do good by her country and more by a subconscious near-insecure impulse to take revenge and win. The movie moves at a pace befitting a high-octane global intelligence manhunt –it pauses for no slow viewer – its storyboard following a carefully constructed logical stream from intelligence breakthrough to intelligence breakthrough and finally to the man himself, holed up in a mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Zero Dark Thirty

The Seal Team 6 operation is painstakingly shot and not rushed – in fact, the methodical nature of the mission once the helicopters land that night in Abbottabad indicates a high level of research into the actual functioning of such a tactical team. The Seals move deliberately – snipers set up at each corner watching windows and doorways; teams of six to eight moving through each entrance in the compound to create a perimeter. The takedown of OBL doesn’t take very long – professionally in and professionally out is the name of the game for these guys.

In the last scene of the film, Maya, mission accomplished, is sitting alone in a military plane taking her back home, and she begins to cry stifled, lonely sobs. Why, the viewer asks, why does she cry such sad tears when she has accomplished so much? In this reviewer’s perspective, the point is that Bin Laden’s death, ten years and billions in the making, was a singular, obsessive focus for the U.S. government – when the deed actually was done, the movie asks, what had we accomplished? Who had we become? What are we left with?

Zero Dark Thirty Trailer


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