Not since Paul Greengrass’ United 93 has there been a movie related to 9/11 that has impressed me as much as Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Fittingly, the film begins with 911 calls on September 11th from a helpless victim inside the World Trade Center. A woman says to the dispatcher: “I’m going to die, aren’t I? I’m going to die,” before the line cuts out. It was a wise move on Bigelow’s part. Sitting in the theater I was transported to that day and from there on out I was emotionally invested. By the final credits it was her directorial chops that kept me glued to my seat, despite the predictable ending.
The problem with reviewing a movie like Zero Dark Thirty is that everyone wants to talk about the torture scenes. And how could they not? Anyone who has seen Django Unchained will recall the “hot boxes” Broomhilda is thrown in when “the box” Zero’s recalcitrant detainees must face makes its debut, before thinking: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” And the dog collar used in Zero alludes to Lynndie England’s Abu Ghraib leash photo, Bigelow’s way of saying the problem was much more systemic than previously thought. Perhaps in a parallel universe Quentin Tarintino will direct a jihad revenge fantasy titled Mohammed Unchained? Who knows.
The point is, there is much more to this movie than water boarding and sleep deprivation. And that is: there are very smart, very evil people out there who are plotting and planning — every moment of every day — ways to attack Western Civilization and kill its people. They are hardened. They are crafty. They are true believers in their cause, and “solving” the problem is no easy task. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why former Navy SEAL Mark Owen (his real name withheld here) titled his book on the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden No Easy Day.
During an explosive scene, one of the CIA big shots slams his hand on a desk in front of his team and says: “Do your fucking jobs! Bring me people to kill!” Well, that isn’t his job. His job is not to simply kill people — but when your own countrymen are dying, when your team members are dying (i.e., the Khost terror attack, in which a double-agent took out seven CIA members in a suicide bombing), and you can’t find the world’s most wanted terrorist after having spent billions of dollars and countless man hours — it becomes easy to unravel. The urge to substitute drone-bombing for a cohesive counter-terrorism strategy is tempting, but it only masks more difficult tasks; left unattended, they still fester and grow.
The star of Zero Dark Thirty is Maya, a CIA analyst played fabulously by Jessica Chastain. Maya is apparently a composite character, but she seems mostly based on an analyst mentioned in Owen’s No Easy Day. The trials and tribulations she displays during her quest to capture and kill Osama bin Laden are shared by the audience. Her frustrations are our frustrations. Her dilemmas are our dilemmas. And her triumph is the nation’s triumph.
I teared up during Zero Dark Thirty because this was the kind of movie the subject matter deserved years ago. I found myself thinking about my friends who were deployed overseas in a post 9/11 world, and one in particular who didn’t come back alive. I found myself thinking about my friends in the intelligence community or my sister, who lived in downtown Manhattan on 9/11 and watched the second plane fly by her window. It was gratifying to see onscreen just how messy and complex and difficult the subject of Islamic terrorism is. Knowing that millions of self-righteous know-it-alls will walk into the theater and leave enraged or confused means that Bigelow did the right thing.
Zero Dark Thirty ends with a pilot asking Maya where she wants to go. With Osama bin Laden dead, there is a cathartic release on her face — but she has no answer. I would argue that her expression is almost as classic as Dustin Hoffman’s and Katharine Ross’ in The Graduate. Regardless, the nation has its own soul-searching to do, and we should all thank Kathryn Bigelow for prompting an adult conversation on the subject when she could have created a polemic. Now somebody just needs to ask Hollywood: What took you so long?