Film Review: Much-touted docudrama gives us room for debate

Zero Dark Thirty
Rated R for strong violence including brutal disturbing images, and for language

Audience reactions to Zero Dark Thirty, the Academy Award-nominated drama about the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden, have ranged across the spectrum. Some viewers find it extremely suspenseful—especially in the last half hour—while others compare its slower moments to watching paint dry.

There is disagreement, too, about the point behind it all: Does the movie say our nation’s goal of taking out the al-Qaida leader justified any means used along the way? Or is it more ambiguous than that? Opinions vary widely.

The movie’s final moments depict the May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound that ended in his death. SONY PICTURES PHOTO

Odds are, this is just what director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal intended. Both took home Oscars three years ago for the vivid but apolitical Iraq war film The Hurt Locker, and they bring an even more noncommittal, near-journalistic style to much of Zero Dark Thirty.

But is it always accurate?

In early scenes, set two years after the 9/11 attacks, young CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) observes one of her colleagues (Jason Clarke) interrogating a detainee at a U.S. military “black site” in Pakistan. Subjected to waterboarding and other tactics, the man breaks down and confesses to knowing “Abu Ahmed,” a personal courier for bin Laden. This puts Maya and others on the track that eventually leads to bin Laden’s violent end on May 2, 2011.

It also implies that waterboarding (or simulated drowning)—which the CIA confirmed using on at least three al-Qaida suspects before the practice was banned in 2009—yielded valuable intelligence. Others who see the technique as torture dispute that claim (see commentary on this page).

Maya (a character based on an actual undercover agent) is at first visibly troubled by the interrogation. But the next time we see her, she’s adopted a similarly hardened approach, and the rest of the film focuses on her obsessive dedication to the job.

Ms. Chastain, noted for her supporting roles last year in The Help and The Tree of Life, doesn’t disappoint here, though perhaps the script stretches credibility by placing a single character at the heart of so many big-headline incidents. (Maya narrowly survives the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing, suffers the loss of her best friend in the 2009 Camp Chapman attack in Afghanistan and arrives on the scene at the end to identify bin Laden’s body.)

But the final image works beautifully: Maya, her mission accomplished and on board a military transport plane to safety, silently cries. Is she expressing joy and relief? Or grief at the price she and others had to pay for this all-important victory?

That’s left for us to ponder, and discuss, among ourselves.


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Bill Fentum, Former UMR Associate Editor

Bill Fentum

Bill Fentum was a dedicated employee of The United Methodist Reporter from 1985 to 2013, serving as the associate editor. Bill continues his work in journalism in a variety of positions as an independent journalist.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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