It’s hard to think of a film more relevant to the past ten years than Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. It begins with a black screen as we hear hysterical reactions to the terrible events of September 11, 2001.
The film then follows the fictional character of Maya (Jessica Chastain) as she and her colleagues spearhead the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. The film blurs the lines between fiction and reality as we are shown real world events such as the London Bombings; Camp Chapman Attack; and (SPOILER ALERT) the eventual finding and killing of “OBL”.
The film itself holds a mirror up to the post-9/11 period; and lets the audience make decisions about whether the actions of the CIA were justified. In particular the opening act of the film shows the torturing of detainees to try and get information that might help them find key members of Al Qaeda.
Much has been said about the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty. Although it should be pointed out everyone seems to agree the CIA did use techniques banned by the “United Nations Convention Against Torture”. Therefore the inclusion of such scenes seems justified.
What people, such as Senator John McCain, disagree with is whether any useful information was gained for such controversial and illegal techniques. The film implies there was. What that means is that the viewer is left to decide whether torture that gets results is justified; rather than making the oft-repeated argument that not only is torture wrong, but it also leads to false testimony.
What the film, and the debate surrounding this issue, does show is how difficult it is to create a piece of work that really does leave it up to the viewer to judge. By making this narrative choice, Bigelow has opened herself up to criticism from those who are against torture, regardless of whether the detainee may know something vital to national security.
The rest of the film sees a director who knows precisely how to create tension in her film, despite the obvious problem that the audience already knows how it’s all going to end. In particular the final act of the film where (SPOILER ALERT AGAIN!) we see the raid on Bin Laden’s home is a fantastic piece of action cinema. As a side note, its place in the movie and use of night-vision will remind viewers of the equally tense final scene of Silence of the Lambs.
When all is said and done, Zero Dark Thirty is a perfect antedate to other American films of revenge like Taken or Kill Bill as one character tries to ‘make amends’ for a great wrong committed against them.
The film shows us revenge is an ugly, nasty thing that never brings the best out of us, and leaves us worn out as we wonder “was it all really worth it?”