Bin Laden thriller 'Zero Dark Thirty' courts controversy — and acclaim
After the Oscars, rumor had it that Bigelow and Boal's next film would be a South American "drug parable," with big names like Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp floated as possible stars. Clearly, a more exciting project took precedence — one that's already raked in critic's association prizes, and raised the ire of government types, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who insist that it has "taken liberties with the facts."
Front-loaded with equal parts acclaim and controversy, Zero Dark Thirty moves into wider release this week, and larger audiences will be able to make up their own minds about it. It's certainly edgier than another 2012 film about CIA heroics. (There's no waterboarding in Argo.) "What I want you to know is that Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts," CIA Acting Director Michael Morell explained in a recent statement, taking issue not just with the depiction of "enhanced interrogation techniques" (that's "torture" to you and me), but also the way the film singles out one character as masterminding the operation to take down Osama bin Laden.
"The point was to immerse the audience in this landscape, not to pretend to debate policy," Bigelow responded in an interview with entertainment site the Wrap. "Was it difficult to shoot? Yes. Do I wish [torture] was not part of that history? Yes, but it was."
The extent to which torture was actually used in the hunt for bin Laden may never be known, though popular opinion will surely be shaped by this film, as it's produced with the same kind of "realness" that made The Hurt Locker so potent. Zero Dark Thirty incorporates torture early in its chronology — which begins in 2003, after a brief opening that captures the terror of September 11, 2001 using only 911 phone calls — but the practice is discarded after 2008, a sea-change year marked by the sight of Obama on TV insisting that "America does not torture." (The "any more" goes unspoken.)
Most of Zero Dark Thirty is set in Pakistan and/or "CIA black sites" in undisclosed locations; it's a suspenseful procedural that manages to make well-documented events (the July 2005 London bombings; the September 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing; the December 2009 bombing of Camp Chapman in Afghanistan) seem shocking and unexpected. Even the raid on bin Laden's HQ is nail-bitingly intense. The film immerses the viewer in the clandestine world, tossing out abbreviations ("KSM" for al-Qaeda bigwig Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) and jargon ("tradecraft") without pausing for a breath. It is thrilling, emotional, engrossing — the smartest, most tightly-constructed action film of the year.
At the center of it all: a character allegedly based on a real person whose actual identity is kept top-secret by necessity. She's interpreted here in the form of a steely CIA operative named Maya, played to likely Oscar-winning perfection by Jessica Chastain. No matter the film's divisive subject matter, there's no denying that this is a powerful performance. Maya is the perfect Bigelow lead; she succeeds in a male-dominated world by focusing solely on her job and her ultimate goal, sexism and gender politics be damned. "Washington says she's a killer," a character remarks after meeting this seemingly delicate creature, and he's proven right long before bin Laden goes down.