Zero Dark 30 – An Unpopular Opinion

Zero Dark Thirty title gif

“Can I be honest with you? I am bad fucking news. I’m not your friend. I’m not going to help you. I’m going to break you. Any questions?”

Depicting one of the greatest manhunts of all time a decade in the making, Zero Dark Thirty was meticulously executed from page to screen by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter-producer Mark Boal; but the factual inaccuracies and poorly written protagonist muddled the “movie of the year.”

Jessica Chastain ZD30
Zero Dark Thirty Torture

Zero Dark Thirty – a title referring to the military term for 30 minutes after midnight – opens to a blackout screen with incoming calls from 9/11 victims in the World Trade Center. Some critics argued that the opening was a cheap gimmick, but the blackout with panicked voices crying, “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” was more effective and tactful than a flashback montage of the actual events surrounding September 11, 2001.

Fast-forward two years later to the US Embassy in Pakistan, where we meet CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain). As a woman tackling a high profile assignment in a fully male environment – not a far stretch for director Bigelow – Maya’s ability to handle the assignment of tracking Osama bin Laden is initially questioned by her male counterparts; but they are assured that “Washington says she’s a killer.”

Jessica Chastain ZD30

Here’s where the immense controversy of the film begins: the interrogation of Amaar, a captured detainee with links to Saudi terrorists. Unwilling to talk or cooperate, alternative methods of interrogation are explored and visualized, including a brutal depiction of waterboarding. The controversy surrounding this is that not only are these methods of interrogation unlawful and banned, but apparently they mislead viewers to think that these tactics were responsible in obtaining crucial facts of bin Laden’s courier and his whereabouts…especially when a detainee willingly states, “I no longer wish to be tortured; I’ll tell you whatever you need to know.”

Dianne Feinstein (head of the Senate Intelligence Committee) requested information and documents regarding the CIA’s cooperation in obtaining information from detainees. After reviewing “more than six million pages of CIA records,” a letter was sent to filmmakers explaining that the film is immorally misleading, making audiences believe that extreme torture helped the CIA in obtaining the necessary information to capture OBL.

Maya Zero Dark Thirty

“The CIA did not first learn about the existence of the UBL courier from CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques. Nor did the CIA discover the courier’s identity from CIA detainees subjected to coercive techniques. No CIA detainee reported on the courier’s full name or specific whereabouts, and no detainee identified the compound in which UBL was hidden. Instead, the CIA learned of the existence of the courier, his true name, and location through means unrelated to the CIA detention and interrogation program.” via GlobalResearch.CA

Bigelow has received enormous backlash for this scene alone. What’s additionally being noted is that torture simply doesn’t work and mostly leads to false confessions. A 2006 study by the National Defense Intelligence College concluded that “traditional, rapport-building interrogation techniques are very effective even with the most recalcitrant detainees, but coercive tactics create resistance.”

Bigelow’s response?

“The point was to immerse the audience in the landscape, not to pretend to debate police. Was it difficult to shoot? Yes. Do I wish [torture] was not a part of that history? Yes, but it was.” Screenwriter Mark Boal adds, “Before we even wrote it, it was branded an Obama campaign commercial, which was preposterous. And now it’s pro-torture, which is preposterous. It’s a movie, not a documentary…we’re trying to make the point that waterboarding and other harsh tactics were part of the CIA program.”  via The Wrap

I have no problems with movies “based on real events” stretching the truth for dramatic purposes. Like I said in reviewing Argo, if the film presents what happens, but tweaks the details to keep the thrills up, that’s okay—it’s a movie. But ZD30 bends serious facts in one of the most heated and still very relevant cases in history. If we’re critiquing this film on a movie-review perspective, this fact bending is not my biggest complaint. Bigelow’s portrayal of the Navy SEALs invasion into the bin Laden compound proves more realistic than theatrical…no cheap thrills or gimmicks…she slaps the viewer in the middle of what appeared to be just another call of duty. Where the film fails for me is with its protagonist—Maya.

Maya Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain failed to deliver the powerhouse performance that I anticipated, but my opinion on her performance falls in the minority, as many praise her subtle depiction of Maya. Maya is a controlled character with a drive far surpassing that of her male colleagues. We know little about Maya outside of her assigned duties, except that she has no personal life.

While she is described as a “killer” in the film, I wasn’t buying what Bigelow was trying to sell. Maya’s attention to detail and relentless drive is undeniable, but her character didn’t make me care about the mission, or her own struggle. There was little emotional connection with her, nothing that made me leap for joy over her victory in the end.

Jeremy Renner the hurt locker
Jeremy Renner & Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker

This is where Hollywood can stretch the truth: a little theatrical flare may have changed my opinion of the character, whose real life identity is heavily under wraps. In Bigelow’s other highly lauded war film, The Hurt Locker, Jeremy Renner portrayed a man so afflicted by the pain of war that he single-handedly made me give a damn about the movie. Understandably, Maya and Sergeant William James are different characters with completely different roles in fighting the war on terror. But a little theatrical outburst of anger or sorrow from Maya instead of a subdued, controlled few tears may have made all the difference.

Maya crying ZD30

ZD30 is well executed and deserves the attention it has garnered—both negative and positive. It’s worth talking about, but failed to meet the high expectations I had from the mighty Bigelow.

7 thoughts on “Zero Dark 30 – An Unpopular Opinion”

  1. Nice review Courtney. This is a very solid manhunt unfolding in a thrilling and entertaining way. It’s not exactly ’24’, but the realism and implied accuracy does make it interesting to watch play out.

    1. Thanks! A lot of people keep arguing that Maya’s character was well-suited for the purpose of the role, but I’ll continue to argue that I wish she had been more developed. I wasn’t moved by the final scene at all.

  2. Haha that Macklin thing 😀

    I didn’t even knew the whole torture angle was such a big lie, Bigelow’s response is so sneaky and avoiding the real subject it’s unbelievable. There were even inaccuracies in the raid, as well made as it was on screen, they put guns in hands of the people who weren’t armed in reality.

    As for Maya she was so poorly written – the biggest problem for me was that at times they tried to make her shine with emotions and it all fell flat, the whole angle with Jennifer Ehle was so phony, because of Chastain just looking tired and down, instead of being furious over losing her. And the scenes where she lashes out at her superiors…oh God, that was just awful.

    1. I watched her on Letterman, and she was a little more honest and candid about how they stretched the truth regarding the torture scenes. I undoubtedly believed that happened, but it would be stupid not to admit the movie is misleading.

  3. Excellent review, Courtney! I’ve been reading mixed opinions about this film, specifically about Chastain’s performance and the handling of the illegal torture that took place around this time. I am considering seeing this movie with my kids as a springboard to discussing the history behind it. I have no idea how I’ll feel about the movie, but I enjoyed your thoughtful, articulate review.

    1. It’s definitely worth seeing. Take your kids. But the torture scene is very uncomfortable, so be sure they go in knowing that. I found the movie as a whole pretty educational outside of the controversy.

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