The death of Osama bin Laden in May of 2011 is considered one of the most significant events of that year and the culmination of years’ worth of intelligence gathering and planning. While the public will probably never know the full story of what happened that night, Academy Award winning director Kathryn Bigelow attempts to shed some light on the events in Zero Dark Thirty.
The film opens with actual 911 calls made during the attacks on September 11, 2001. The audio, accompanied by a completely black screen, forces you to focus on their voices, their screams. Imagery isn’t necessary here. It sets the tone for the intense and oftentimes disturbing narrative that is to follow.
Zero Dark Thirty weaves a fictional narrative based on true events and facts. CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) has spent her entire career hunting down Osama bin Laden. Working in Pakistan, she gathers Intel on known associates of the al-Qaeda leader and begins to make her case in his capture. It’s a slow and arduous process requiring years of interrogations, intercepted phone calls, and yes, even torture.
The torture scenes have caused a good bit of controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty but they’re necessary in driving the story forward and establishing Chastain as a force to be reckoned with. Initially she appears hesitant to even be in the same room as a detainee, but as the years progress and the body count continues to build she becomes determined to see this through to the end no matter the danger.
There’s a lot of information within the first half of the film and much of it can fly over your head, especially if you’re not familiar with government policies. The secretive meetings and discussions about how to proceed are compiled with military lingo, making it easy to get lost in the quick back and forth banter between characters. As the film progresses to its inevitable conclusion, the dialogue becomes less confusing as the mission becomes more defined.
The final portion of the film carries out the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, and it’s as tense as the film gets. We’ve all read the accounts of what happened on May 2, 2001 but to see the mission actually carried out on screen – albeit in typical Hollywood fashion – conveys it in an entirely new light. It paints a conflicting picture as U.S. soldiers encounter women and children within house, many screaming and crying in fright of what’s going on. War is an ugly scene no matter how you look at it.
Zero Dark Thirty is one of those films that is definitely worth seeing, but where one viewing is enough. It’s an intense and thought-provoking look at the past 10 years the United States has spent hunting Osama bin Laden, even if it is just a work of fiction.