Everyone has their own 9/11 story. It starts with a memory: where you were when you heard that terrorists had flown airplanes into the Twin Towers. Nearly a decade after the fact, U.S. Navy SEALs gave us a conclusion to our stories: the death of Osama bin Laden. But the years in between, and our own judgments on the Bush and Obama presidencies, color our perspectives and ensure that no story is the same as another. So it’s nearly impossible to create a movie about the period that stays true to what happened without offending a decent number of Americans.
Somehow Kathryn Bigelow, who made history as the first woman to win a best director Oscar for her Iraq war film “The Hurt Locker,” manages to do it. She’s made a film that doesn’t preach. Instead, it presents what happened, as realistically as possible.
“Zero Dark Thirty” chronicles the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, from the aftermath of the 9/11 attack to the discovery and assault on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan.
But from the start, Bigelow avoids predictability. She opens not with the towers falling, but with a dark screen, overlaying call after call from emergency personnel and people trapped in the towers saying their goodbyes, blended in a cacophony that melts into a final haunting call from two women waiting for help that never arrived.
Cut to: a CIA black site in an undisclosed location, where Maya (Jessica Chastain, who received an Oscar nomination for her determined performance), a fresh-faced CIA agent, joins the U.S. hunt for terrorists. She steps off the plane, directly into an “enhanced interrogation” session, and we watch with her as a fellow agent (Jason Clarke) waterboards a captured terrorist (Reda Kateb).
From the first torture scene to the final gunshots from the Navy SEALs, Bigelow presents moral gray areas without judgment, letting the characters justify their actions and live with their consciences. The terrorist attacks that occur periodically throughout the film are reminders that Maya and the other agents use torture for a reason.
Bigelow focuses on enhanced interrogation for an inordinate amount of time in “Zero Dark Thirty.” With the help of screenwriter Mark Boal (who also partnered with her on “The Hurt Locker”), Bigelow set out to make the cinematic equivalent of a long-form journalism piece, complete with chapter titles and fade-outs. This “reported film” divorces itself from judgment and simply presents, in as much detail as possible, every aspect of the hunt for bin Laden.
The interrogation scenes infuse action into a story that, while never plodding, becomes labored as the years slip by with Maya no closer to finding bin Laden. 2003 becomes 2004, and 2004 becomes 2005. Maya hops from black site to military base to U.S. embassy. She spends countless hours behind a desk, staring at a computer screen. She grows exhausted. Meanwhile the body count from terrorist attacks around the world continues to rise. That alone seems to keep her going. A smart, realistic cast of characters come and go, some dying, some transferring. But Maya, who is based on an actual, unnamed agent, continues hounding after the smallest clues about bin Laden’s location.
Finally something solid materializes: a single name. The pace quickens, and despite the government bureaucracy standing in Maya’s way at every turn, the name receives a face, the face a voice on the phone. Then they find him: bin Laden’s courier. It’s not long before SEALs are prepping for a nighttime raid of bin Laden’s compound.
The raid, what America has been waiting to see, plays out in real time, as the SEALs methodically, strategically break inside the walled perimeter and move into bin Laden’s house. Bigelow combines the neon of night vision with low-light nighttime shooting. The spectrum of blues and grays and blacks maximizes the dark of night while obscuring little. Presented without a score, the mission has realistic intensity, complete with a deafening helicopter crash that draws local attention and threatens to end the mission. Seeing the SEALs in action is well worth the two-hour build-up.
Bigelow’s realistic pacing throughout, with the film’s inconspicuous camerawork, lighting and unobtrusive score (by Alexandre Desplat of “The King’s Speech”), lets the movie melt away and the story simply be. It’s a worthy ending to America’s 9/11 story, and a worthy tribute to the men and women who gave us closure.
Darin Miller is a film critic in Washington, D.C.