Zero Dark Thirty is a spy-thriller that blends fiction with details dug up by the film’s creators in conjunction with the CIA. Even the film’s trailer, which shows censor bars being erased from the title, implies that secrets will be uncovered. “Thirty” recounts the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
The movie follows the story of Maya, a young intelligence agent who joins a task force to help in the search for bin Laden. Maya is played by Jessica Chastain, whose delicate features and young-sounding voice belie the strength of her character. Chastain’s Maya is tough and dedicated; it is Maya’s dogged steeliness, the movie suggests, that ultimately led to bin Laden’s capture. Maya’s character, who, based on her traits and personality, could have been shallow and undeveloped if portrayed by a lesser actress, shone through Chastain’s performance.
While the acting was a draw for some to see the film, if other elements like dialogue or plot had been weaker, the strength of the actors would not have been enough. Filmmakers face a monumental task to create suspense in a movie where the audience already knows how the story will end. By revealing details about the inner workings of the CIA during the period, including controversial depictions of torture, the movie achieves the suspense necessary to carry the audience through.
The film’s depiction of torture, which drew criticism from some quarters, mostly occurs early in the film. While it’s uncomfortable, it isn’t so explicit that I had to leave the theater (I’m personally uncomfortable with graphic depictions of torture). Instead, the heavy stuff is implied: for example, the battered face of a detainee is shown as opposed to the actual beating, and the filmmakers rely heavily on the use of dialogue to convey the gist of what’s happening.
I wouldn’t call the film pro-torture, although some have argued the film suggests the torture of detainees ultimately led to finding bin Laden. I can see where that interpretation comes from: such might be the case of one elderly gentleman who answers Maya’s questions eagerly after expressing a wish not to undergo torture again. However, one prisoner named Ammar, who is kept at a CIA cite for interrogation, only answers the agents’ questions once the agents have taken him out of his cell and given him a meal, and not under torture.
Instead of revealing a clear position, I believe the film leaves room for ambiguity; it suggests you can’t form neat groups of good guys and bad guys. Instead, these larger groups — Americans versus their enemies — are made of individuals whose distinct narratives help to form impressions of the whole.
The good guys in this film use torture. The bad guys are shown vulnerable, naked and at the mercy of their American captors. And some are cowardly — spilling secrets so as not to be hurt.
It’s about individuals. Real nations –real stories– are about individuals who don’t follow a fairy tale format with clearly delineated moral lines.
This film is brilliant because it provides a look at real life through the lens of fiction.